Combine the physical contact of football with the endurance requirements of soccer, and you get one tough sport. But for one tight-knit group at Drexel, that unforgiving sport is about to give them something back after hours and hours of work: a chance to play in the national spotlight.
Later this week, the Drexel men’s rugby club team will take the field at PPL Park in Chester at the Collegiate Rugby Championship, where 20 of the best teams in the country will battle it out for a national title.
The moment comes as the team rides a wave of increasing success, and as the sport of rugby is experiencing a surge in exposure as it prepares to be part of the Olympics in 2016 for the first time since 1924.
“It’s going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of the guys on the team,” said Hunter Valentine, a senior in mechanical engineering and the club’s president. “It’s probably the most-watched rugby tournament that anyone at the college level can compete in. It is going to be an unreal experience.”
It will be Drexel’s first appearance in the tournament, which began in 2010 and has been played in the Philadelphia area since 2011. The Dragons earned their berth thanks to their improved performance in recent years, as well as the devotion of its fan base.
“It’s a great opportunity for the club,” Valentine said. “All the work we’ve done in the last two years has been coming to this point.”
In that two-year span, Valentine said, the team has hired a new coach — Drexel alumnus Michael Burch, who has national rugby tournament experience — doubled its participation and moved from losing records to winning ones. After finishing second at a Philadelphia city collegiate tournament the past two years, and packing the stands in a sport hungry for fan fervor, the Dragons earned a spot in the national tournament, which will be televised nationally on the NBC Sports network.
Teams at the Collegiate Rugby Championship play the variant of rugby known as sevens, so-called because each team has seven players on the field at all times instead of the traditional 15. It’s the brand of rugby that will be played at the Olympics in two years.
“It’s a quicker, fast-paced game,” Valentine said. “That’s what makes it good for television.” Drexel began playing sevens competitively only three years ago.
Valentine, who joined the club as a freshman without any rugby experience, has watched it grow from about 20 members to about 40. An even greater number of new recruits typically give the team a try at the beginning of each season, he said, before many decide the demanding sport isn’t for them. But the ones who stick with it are devoted, he said, and the club gives him and others a great social niche during their time at Drexel.
“It’s such an intense game,” Valentine said. “It’s a great way to relieve the stress of school.”
Drexel is scheduled to play Maryland at 5:20 p.m. Friday, California at 11:40 a.m. Saturday, and Temple at 6:04 p.m. Saturday. The game against Temple on Saturday will be broadcast in the region on Comcast SportsNet.
A limited number of free tickets remain for the tournament’s Saturday session. Students can pick them up by presenting a DragonCard at the Club Sports Office in the Drexel Recreation Center between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Students must pick up the tickets by Thursday.
Free shuttles to PPL Park will leave from 33rd and Market streets at 9 a.m., 10:30 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday. And at a pep rally from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday at 33rd and Market streets, students can meet the team’s players and take advantage of some free food.