The 2010-11 collegiate sports campaign has just about run its course, with only a handful of national championships that must still be decided. You know, those typical "spring" sports like baseball, softball, track and field, men's golf and ...
Rugby sevens, of course.
What in the world, you're probably wondering, is rugby sevens?
Well, in all honesty, until yesterday, I was kinda wonderin' the same thing.
But after chatting with University of Utah rugby coach Blake Burdette, whose team took the inaugural collegiate club title last year and is in Philadelphia this weekend to defend its national championship, I gained a much better understanding of the sport.
For the uneducated (like myself), rugby sevens is basically a derivative of regular rugby, except it's played with just seven men on a side (somewhat similar to 7-man high school football), rather than the customary 15-man rugby lineup. It's played on a regulation-sized field, and a match consists of two seven-minute halves.
Yep, just 14 ferocious minutes of bruising, battling, body-slamming fun.
"They're very short games," Burdette said, "but they're fast and they're exciting. Games can be 60-0 or they can be low scoring and very close.
"I don't know if we have a lot of individual players who really stick out, but we do have a really good team," said Burdette, a former Utah rugby and football player who played on the U.S. rugby team and has served as the Utes' head rugby coach for three years. "From what I've seen this week, every team that's here has improved since last year.
"Last year was the first year for this event, and this year everybody came here with a better understanding of what to expect. I think it's going to be a better competition this year, and we're excited to be here."
After taking third place in the national rugby championships two weeks ago — they lost to eventual champion Cal-Berkeley and wound up their season 17-3 overall, with two of their losses coming against Cal and the other one against in-state rival and national runner-up BYU — Burdette had the difficult task of trimming his 55-member rugby team down to a 12-man roster.
That's how many made the trip to Philadelphia for this weekend's rugby sevens national championships, which features 16 teams.
The Utes' "Dirty Dozen" includes Scott Metcalf, Zack Taylor, Cameron Loser, Danny James, Vernon Ale, Shawn Quigley, Winston Harris, Kave Lauti, Don Pati, Blake Miller, Willie Smit and Tonata Lauti.
"We had a tryout and let everybody who wanted to try out," Burdette said. "It was a tough decision, and hopefully we've got the right 12 guys. ... We'll try to create some space outside and let our fast guys do their thing."
Pati, who plays the scrumhalf position and "is probably the best player at his position in the country," according to Burdette, was recently named to the 30-member Collegiate All-American Team by RugbyMag. So was Utah teammate Thretton Palamo, one of the squad's premier players who has committed his time to the Utes' football team as a running back and did not travel to the national tournament.
"We have a few new guys on the team this year," said Pati, a sophomore from Samoa who serves as the Utes' team captain. "Obviously we're not as experienced at playing sevens, and we're missing one of our key players from last year in Palamo.
"But so far, so good. The boys have been training for a couple of weeks now, and this year's team has a lot of guys with talent and a lot of good athletes, and that's what you need. I'm pretty confident that we're going to do well."
Pati admitted that, after taking last year's title with a thrilling 31-26 overtime victory over Cal, the Utes have a big target on their backs this time around.
"Yes, definitely," he said. "Everybody's after the first spot and they know that we did it last year, so everybody's aiming for us. It should be a challenge for us.
"It would be nice to win it again. We've been working hard, two-a-days morning and afternoon, so we've put in a lot of work for this and you hope all your hard work pays off. We've just got to execute the game plan. We've put in the work and now we've got to go do it."
The Utes will face three games in pool play today — beginning at 9:04 a.m. MDT against Dartmouth, which is coached by Burdette's former Highland High rugby teammate Alex Magelby. That will be followed by a 12:30 p.m. match against Boston College and a 3 p.m. duel with Notre Dame. The Utah-Boston College clash will be shown live on Versus, and the Utah-Notre Dame game will be broadcast live on NBC.
"What's kind of interesting is there's not a lot of University of Utah teams playing on NBC these days and here we are, doing it for the second year in a row," said Burdette. "It was a great experience for our guys last year, and we played in a great final against Cal-Berkeley."
The top two teams from each of four pools advance to Sunday's eight-team, single-elimination event.
"We've got to have a little faith and play with heart," said Pati, who admits the Utes are pretty thrilled about playing on national TV today. "Obviously, our families and relatives and friends can watch us perform, so that's exciting for everybody.
"But we've got to focus on what we're here for. Sure, it's cool to be on national TV, and just to be here is real nice, but we've got work to do."
Burdette says that while Cal was the favorite to take last year's national title, there's not a clear-cut favorite for this year's crown.
And he admittedly doesn't know much about the other teams in the field — except that with a pool featuring Dartmouth, Boston College and Notre Dame, "we've probably got the lowest team GPA in our pool," he laughed.
Actually, Utah's team GPA is a very respectable 3.2, and all team members must be full-time students who are working toward obtaining a degree — one of Burdette's requirements to play for the Utes.
"We try to do it the right way," he said. "We want to make sure these kids get their degrees — that's my main focus.
"Rugby is a great sport, but these boys aren't going to make any money playing rugby in America. So our first goal is that they get their degree. Since I've been at Utah, all of our guys who were eligible to graduate have done so — that's the stat that matters to me the most."
Collegiate club championships
Today's Utah pool-play schedule (times MDT): Utah vs. Dartmouth, 9:04 a.m.; Utah vs. Boston College, 12:30 p.m. (Versus); Utah vs. Notre Dame, 3 p.m. (NBC)
NOTE: Utah is the defending national champion in this event, which features seven-man teams playing games comprised of two seven-minute halves on a regulation-sized field. ... The top two teams from each of four pools advance to Sunday's eight-team, single-elimination championship event. BYU did not send a team to the tournament due to its no-play-on-Sunday guidelines.