September 1, 2023

Men’s 2023 XVs Season Preview

September 1 - Two-a-days, move-ins and convocations flood the calendar right now, but on campuses across America it’s about to be rugby season. Nearly 350 clubs make up four men’s divisions; Division I, Division I-AA, Division II and Small College. The playoffs begin November 17, and national champions will be crowned on December 9-10 at AVEVA Stadium in Houston. 

For the second-straight year, NCR is bringing back Friday Night Rugby, live streaming a game of the week in September and October. The season kicks off on September 8, featuring six men's matches in total and showcasing teams from all divisions.

Men’s Division I

The Preseason Power 10 Rankings forecast a rematch of last year’s national championship game between No. 1 Brown and No. 2 Queens. Both are anchored by returning All-Americans, the Royals by junior scrumhalf Hilton Olivier and the Bears by senior lock Ollie Corbett. The 2021 champion St. Bonaventure is ranked third, one ahead of Rugby East rival Notre Dame College. When these two meet November 4 in the final week of the regular season, conference supremacy and playoff implications are likely to be on the line. 

Belmont Abbey is looking to build on an impressive second year as a program in 2022, falling to Wheeling 19-13 in the play-in round in 15s, and in 7s knocking off Siena, Notre Dame College and Mary Washington to reach the semifinals of the Collegiate Rugby Championship, falling to eventual champion Mount Saint Mary’s. Head coach Nick Whitrow has booked more challenges this fall, highlighted by Belmont Abbey’s September 16 trip to Queens for the first-ever meeting of two varsity programs whose campuses sit just 16 miles from one another. 

The Big Rivers Conference, the first and largest all-varsity conference in men’s college rugby, grew in its first-ever offseason, picking up Principia and Rio Grande. Both partook in the conference’s 7s series last spring, showing well against DI competition. They’ll be chasing defending champion Thomas More, who graduated a pair of All-Americans in flyhalf Matias Caramuti and prop Hudson Montgomery. Also nipping on the Saints’ heels are Marian and Iowa Central Community College, both of whom brought in talented recruiting classes.  

In the Big Ten, defending champion Indiana is still the heavy favorite, though a challenge could be coming from in-state rival Notre Dame. The Hoosiers bested the Fighting Irish by 14 points in the conference semifinals last fall, and Notre Dame has hauled in one of the most ballyhooed recruits in recent memory in Jack Waterhouse, the 6’4” first-year from Johannesburg. A lock on the South African U18 national team, he’ll be a tough tackle coming off the back of scrums playing No. 8 for the Fighting Irish. It takes a lot more than one man to beat Indiana, but he’ll help. 

Men’s Division I-AA

Virginia Tech is expected to mount a serious defense of their national title this fall, but will be playing the role of spoiler in a new conference, the MARC. The move makes what was a national semifinal between the Hokies and St. Joe’s, won 17-15 by Virginia Tech in December, now a potential conference-playoff pairing. 

Though Virginia Tech returns senior All-Americans No. 8 Hunter Danesi and wing Will Richey, the Hokies enter the season ranked second behind Louisville, having nipped the Cardinals on the final play of the game in last year’s final. That’s because Louisville returns 14 starters headlined by a trio of All-Americans in prop Angelo Eklou, lock Christopher Jensvold and flyhalf Aaron Stevenson.

New to the national playoff landscape this season are SCRC contender Kentucky and defending Liberty Conference champions and third-ranked Boston College. The Eagles opted out of the playoffs last season, but are serious about a postseason run this year. The Wildcats are in the middle of three Southeastern Collegiate Rugby Conference teams in the Preseason Top 10, alongside Tennessee, who lost to the eventual champs by just four in the opening round last fall, and always-tough South Carolina. 

Men’s Division II

A new national champion will be crowned in 2023, as Principia has moved up to DI and the Big Rivers Conference. To find the last DII national champion still competing in DII, you have to go back to 2017 and Wisconsin-Whitewater. Every champion since has moved up to DI or DI-AA. 

The 2023 15s runner-up and back-to-back 7s national champion Indiana University of Pennsylvania returns a talented group and has to be considered the favorite. Norwich is always strong, but they and the rest of the New England Wide conference will be pushed by Maine-Orono, a very competitive club moving up from Small College. The MARC is massive again, with Georgetown looking to repeat, but Villanova, Bucknell, Scranton and Bloomsburg are all capable of making waves. 

Northern Iowa is the favorite in the Great Midwest, but Loyola lurks as a dark horse. In the new-look Southern Conference, UNC-Wilmington looks like the team to beat, as 2022 semifinalist North Carolina State has moved up to D1-AA. In the Gateway, the race is wide open with Principia moved on. Look for Washington and SLU to try and keep the conference crown in the 314 area code. With Auburn also moving up, the SCRC is anybody’s to win, though Memphis looks like a frontrunner. 


Men’s Small College 

Despite a single try separating them in last year’s national championship game, Cal Poly Humboldt and Wayne State College (NE) begin the season ranked second and third, respectively, behind reigning 7s champion Babson. The Lumberjacks graduated a pair of All-Americans, and while the Wildcats are expected to return some serious talent on the field, for the first time in program history they won’t be coached by Darrin Barner, who has left the program he founded in 2002. 

Babson returns All-American Reed Santos and a slew of fifth-years, so the Beavers take the top billing. Santos spent his summer break adding more hardware to the trophy case, winning the Premier Rugby 7s men’s title with the Rhinos x Loggerheads. The Beavers open the season September 9 with a stiff test against Division I AIC. 

Catholic and Endicott made the semifinals last fall and appear poised for deep runs again. Furman could stir things up coming down from D2; the Paladins won three-consecutive Small College national titles from 2003-2006. Western Oregon took it on the chin, 51-17, against Humboldt in the quarterfinals last fall, and the Wolves find themselves outside the Top Ten to start the season, but that’s unlikely to last long.  


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