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Sevens tournament presents opportunity for revenge

Megan Golden | Tuesday, May 3, 2011

For the second consecutive year, an emerging Irish squad will travel to the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship.

The team will battle to send the seniors off with the cup, seeking revenge against a team that ended its run a year ago.

The Irish (3-3) compete in the Mid-South Conference, one of four conferences in the Collegiate Premier League, which consists of the country’s top-31 teams. The Irish finished third in their conference, just short of entering the playoffs as one of the top-two teams.

Coming off a dominating 34-5 victory against Tennessee, the Irish are confident in their talent across the board. The team credits their success this season to the strenuous practices they have endured over the offseason, including 6 a.m. workouts in the snow.

“The first game we won — against LSU — showed our strength of fitness,” senior scrumhalf and team captain Andy O’Connor said. “They just died, tired out and they were up 11-0 at halftime. We came back and won, and it showed that we could still push it.”

The experienced Irish feature 19 seniors, each of whom has witnessed drastic changes within the Notre Dame rugby program. The Irish switched from Division II to Division I after their freshman season and were met with immediate success behind Irish coach Sean O’Leary.

The seniors have made it clear everyone on the team has an equal chance to compete for playing time.

“On this team, it’s more merit-based. If you’re good enough to play on the first team, then you will be playing no matter how old you are,” senior center Sean Mitchell said. “Just because we’re seniors doesn’t mean we’re going to get playing time.”

The senior leadership on the field has translated into outstanding team chemistry amongst all they players.

“We’re pretty much friends with everyone,” O’Connor said. “I’m friends with freshmen. Everyone hangs out with everyone, and there’s no clique like other teams where you have to earn your respect.”

O’Leary came to Notre Dame with the goal of turning around the program, and according to O’Connor, he has certainly lived up to expectations.

“Our coach is one of the best in the U.S., if not the best. He’s the reason we’re in the top-31 teams,” O’Connor said.

In honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Notre Dame rugby program, alumni traveled to South Bend this weekend to watch their alma mater dismantle the Volunteers. Current Irish players had the opportunity to chat with the former athletes at a banquet.

“Apparently they [alumni] won the championship in 1965, and they were the first rugby team ever put on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’,” Mitchell said. “This weekend we got a chance to actually meet the people who are donating that money — the people who are supporting the team and driving the team.”

Sevens consists of 16 of the country’s most renowned schools, all of which will compete to win the cup.

Each team opens competition on the first day against opposition within its pool. The top-two finishers within each pool advance to a bracket-style tournament on the second day. For the 2011 Sevens, the Irish are in a pool alongside Boston College, Dartmouth and Utah.

Run by NBC, Sevens was created a year ago when Utah upset rugby-powerhouse California to win the cup.

With only seven guys on the field as opposed to fifteen, and fourteen-minute games instead of eighty-minute games, a tournament contest is played with a different strategy than a regular rugby match. Notre Dame will work with two-year Sevens coach Kruger Van Biljon, who will select 12 players to travel to Philadelphia for the invitational.

The Irish travel to Philadelphia, Penn., from June 4 to 5 to compete in the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship at PPL Park.