Having been at the Varsity Cup final between Cal and BYU last Saturday I can tell you that there is no doubt from either side that BYU won this year’s National Championship. However, if you step outside of those two schools and United World Sports, the company the promotes the Varsity Cup and runs the CRC and Las Vegas 7s, it’s a lot less clear that there is consensus around the topic. Fans, players, and coaches of St. Mary’s and Life will also claim that they won a national championship if they emerge with the DI-A title this weekend.
Both competitions have merit to their arguments. Over the last 30 years the national title has either gone to Cal or to BYU with only a few exceptions. They have long been the dominant programs in college rugby and when they were in DI-A and its predecessor they used to beat both St. Mary’s and Life in the playoffs. In 2013 both of those schools were the best in the country. The Varsity Cup also features the likes of Utah, UCLA, and Central Washington, all of whom can claim to be Top 10 programs in the country.
On the other hand DI-A is the only officially sanctioned national championship by U.S.A. Rugby. Going strictly by the book they are the national champion. However, last year’s championship by Life felt hollow because they didn’t play BYU or Cal. Overall, the DI-A semi-finals were more competitive, especially with Arkansas State taking shape. From that perspective the overall level of DI-A competition may be higher but there are still questions at the top.
This year things are even more complicated because St. Mary’s beat Cal and then beat and lost to BYU. Had they beaten BYU and not lost there would be little doubt that they are the best team in the country. Now, even if they blow out Life on Saturday there will always be doubt as to whether they are number one.
While having a consensus number one is nice, it’s not necessary for the continued growth of college rugby and may in fact be beneficial. One of the things that stood out from the Varsity Cup was head coach Jack Clark’s answer to a question regarding whether his team needed to make moves to win championships again. He correctly noted that his team was right there but now there is more competition in the college ranks, which makes for more exciting play. He’s right. When Cal dominated every year the competition was predictable. This year you have four teams that legitimately think they are the top program in the country.
That competition with one another is forcing teams to improve their programs. From almost every angle the Varsity Cup was professionally run. Every fixture was fulfilled, they had nice venues, and the final was shown on NBC Sports. When you treat fans and players well you are going to get a better product. DI-A has also tried to professionalize its approach. It has its own separate website and will have its final in a nice stadium. They still have a ways to go to catch the Varsity Cup but the tournament is no longer being held in obscurity.
All we have to do is look to other sports to realize that consensus national champions don’t happen that often. Just look at college football. The current BCS system has been under constant scrutiny since its started. How many small conference schools have gone unbeaten during the season only to be shut out of the national championship game to a bigger school with one loss. Rugby shares a lot of the same traits as college football in terms of conferences, scheduling, etc. If controversy helps bring in ratings for college football why can’t it do the same for college rugby.
The biggest problem I see from this year’s playoffs hasn’t been the existence of two championships but they blowouts in each of the tournaments. Aside from one or two matches every single match in both competitions has been a blowout. It has really exposed the gap between the top four or five teams and the rest of the field. If teams 1-10 were all at least semi-competitive with one another I think it would drive down some of the demand for a consensus champion. Instead you get the top four teams strolling to their respective finals when if they had all been in the same tournament the semi-finals would have been competitive.
In the end there is no simple fix. No matter what you do people are always going to be saying that their team is the best and looking for reasons why their opponents aren’t as strong. That’s college athletics! It may take a few more years but things will work out in the end and eventually the best teams in the country are going to play each other. In the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy some rugby.