University of South Carolina Gamecocks set to take on the competition at this weekend’s Penn Mutual College Rugby Championship.
The United States college sevens season is coming to an end. The final tournament of the year will be taking place between 20 teams in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, to determine the sevens (7s) national champions. Last Word On Rugby had the opportunity to talk with University of South Carolina 7s head coach Steve Darnell to discuss the tournament.
Last Word on Rugby (LWOR): With the success of the South Carolina program, is Gamecock Rugby University of South Carolina’s most successful sports team?
Steve Darnell (SD): We have been doing well. We’ve been on an upward trajectory for the past three years, which has worked well for us and we hope to continue in the same vein. I have some very seasoned players who have been with me for this third year, and that certainly has made a difference. Our winning record is representative of that.
LWOR: Heading into the College Rugby Championship, what would you say are the biggest challenges for your team this weekend?
SD: I would say, from a coaching standpoint, staying healthy is going to be our number one challenge. I don’t have the depth that I’ve had in the past, so keeping them all healthy is going to be very important.
Next, would be maintaining possession and keeping our heads about us. Not getting flustered and sticking with our game plan is something we need to do. We’ve done a good job of that, but during our one loss for the season that is exactly what happened, we lost our focus. We want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
First training session in Philly pic.twitter.com/8SLx5xAIf2
— Gamecock Rugby (@CockRugby) May 31, 2018
LWOR: How do you feel about South Carolina’s pool draw?
SD: I Like it. It could have been a lot more difficult. there are no easy pools here, but as far as being familiar with the teams we are playing against. I like that we’ve played Indiana the past two years and played them very close last year. So we are certainly happy to have them in our pool. Arizona we have not played before but, from looking at them they are not that different from Indiana – but they are a very, very good side.
Boston College is a little bit of an unknown, they can play either really good or they can play very poorly so we need to make sure we can impose our game on them. We think the order of the games is perfect for us with Indiana first, Boston College second and Arizona last.
First training session is in the books ??? — feeling pumped
— Gamecock Rugby (@CockRugby) May 31, 2018
LWOR: In your opinion, what is the overall state of the college game for rugby?
SD: I think its on an upward trajectory. It is, however, at a bit of a crossroads. You have an acceleration of performance and skill level and a lot of very good athletes interested in the game. Then, there is the disparity between teams where you have some performing very well and some lagging behind.
I think the challenge going forward is to organize the level of play so that you keep each group competitive with one another and avoid the frustration. At the same time you can make the very good teams better by offering better competition.
Geography can make it very difficult for some sides. I’ve seen that it’s much easier for the teams such as the Chesapeake Bay conference; given their close proximity to one another, to schedule competitive matches. For us, we’re a bit isolated from having those competitive opportunities.
Financing and relationships with the universities can make travel difficult. In that sense, we’re at a crossroads of whether we can convince the schools (and foundations as well) to give 7s more support, to make sure the competitive schools are playing against each other.
LWOR: Going forward, not just through this weekend, but into the future what would you like to see for the Gamecocks?
SD: Two things. First is to get good recruits by supplying them with the necessary training and getting them to buy into the program and culture. That would be something to push us forward. There are some strong freshmen and transfers coming in at the tight five, which we really need in the 15s game. We should have some that we can develop into 7s players there as well.
We are still having some stiff competition for out-of-state students, with many going to varsity programs in particular. I can’t blame them for that. They are able to give them a whole lot more. Queens University in North Carolina is starting to make a small impact on our recruiting, but we still have some really strong players in South Carolina and we can develop those. The University of South Carolina can offer excellent academics, along with a strong rugby program and that is a mix not available at many university programs.
The second item is maintaining support for the programs.
We have been discussing this weekend where our resources are and where we can put them to the best use. We are looking to a new three year plan, because we are coming to the end of what I was hoping to do as far as helping the sevens. And now, to get the 15s back on track too. It will take some quality players to do that, and we will be graduating a very large class of seasoned players next year, so replacing those will be very difficult.
Besides the obvious for the weekend, what are some key things to consider this weekend a success?
SD: Being competitive in all the matches, even if we come up short in some of them. We are also noted as a very entertaining team – because we play really hard from whistle to whistle – which head coach Steve Darnell thinks is in fact a ‘complement’.
University of South Carolina development of young players
Steve continues, saying “Developing some of the younger players will be a big plus. If they’re playing well it will be a big help, especially going forward. We have worked towards our goal of getting into the Cup round this year and, hopefully, we’ll be able to accomplish that goal.
I think we are in the right mindset and if everyone maintains that we’ll be OK. That’s what I’d like to see, as well as everyone walking off the field healthy. If we are at our very best and we catch some of the other teams not playing at their best, we can move forward.