Notre Dame rugby competes at Fighting Irish 7s Invitational
Ryan Murphy | Monday, April 3, 2023
Battling rain, snow and wind gusts well over 20 miles per hour, the Notre Dame men’s rugby program hosted its annual Fighting Irish 7s Invitational tournament on Saturday. The team posted a 2-2 record against the field of 12 in the qualifier division, with wins over the University of Illinois and Marian University.
It was two close, two-point losses that dogged Notre Dame’s championship hopes. After falling in their final game of pool play to Adrian College 14-12, the Irish bowed out of contention for the tournament title with a 7-5 loss to Aquinas College in the quarterfinals.
“Our perspective is, like, this is our learning ground. Our goal is the end of April and the national championship tournament,” Irish head coach Justin Hickey said following his team’s quarterfinal loss. “Hopefully, we stumble and learn from these things now so that, come the end of April, we’re back in shape.”
The toughest challenge for the whole squad Saturday, other than the fierce competition, was the natural elements. A classic calamity of late-spring weather conditions kept the matches tight and low scoring.
“It’s tough. I mean, it’s becoming a running joke. We host this thing, and it doesn’t matter the date, the conditions have seemed to be pretty poor,” Hickey said. “The biggest thing is that it impacts the spacing. We’ve gotta tighten things down — you can’t make big passes. I think [it’s] just probably an indicator of the couple of times we lost today. You’ve gotta make smart decisions, you might be able to get an offload away in traffic, but today you’ve got the wind factoring in as well. It just requires you to be a little bit tighter and a little bit more cautious with your play.”
Indiana University took home the qualifying bracket crown with a 19-7 victory over Notre Dame College (Cleveland, Ohio) in the title game. Fighting Irish rugby’s hopes still remain alive for a bid to the 32-team national championship tournament at the end of the month. The Irish need a strong performance at the Big Ten Rugby championships in order to qualify. Notre Dame will host the championships on April 15.
Irish top Illinois to open pool play
In their first match of pool play, the Irish defeated Big Ten foe Illinois 24-14. Trailing at the end of the first half, Notre Dame rode a strong second half to win its first match of pool play.
The match was played to a stalemate until late in the first half when the Illini got the game’s first try. After a botched Illini line-out, junior Nolan Opalski had the ball fall into his hands. The Carlsbad, California, native was able to break free from the Irish defense, grounding the ball over the try line with 1:40 left in the first half. Illinois converted the kick for an extra two points and led 7-0.
But the Irish responded as time dwindled in the first half. Sophomore Andrew Packard broke through at midfield and raced up the right side of the pitch, scoring a try with just fifteen seconds remaining in the half. Although senior James Warren was unable to convert the kick, the Irish were on the board. Illinois led 7-5 at halftime.
Notre Dame ran away with the match in the second half, scoring three consecutive tries to stun the oft-disorganized Illini. Sophomore Patrick McKenzie scored early in the half, taking it all the way from midfield and diving underneath the crossbar for the try. Senior Christian Opperman knocked through the conversion kick. Opperman then took things into his own hands, scoring two tries in short succession to put the Irish ahead 22-7. A late try by Illini sophomore Patrick Devereaux could not pull his team close. The game closed as a 24-14 Irish win.
Late push comes up short against Adrian
In their second match of the day, the Irish met Adrian to determine the Pool C champion. In a low-scoring match with a chaotic finish, Adrian escaped with a 14-12 win.
Adrian began the match by applying pressure to the Irish defense right away. Notre Dame held up Adrian on the goal line in the first thirty seconds of the match but could not poach possession from the Bulldogs. Eventually, sophomore Apenisa Sailo found space in behind the Notre Dame defense, breaking a tackle and diving beneath the crossbar for the try. The conversion kick went through, and Adrian led 7-0 a minute into the match.
Adrian’s defense remained stout as the match wore on, frustrating Notre Dame. Eventually, Adrian took a penalty inside the Irish 22 that led to an Irish try, as Packard picked up the ball and ran the length of the field to the try line. Warren made the conversion kick, tying the game at 7-7.
That score held at the end of the first half. Two minutes into the second half, sophomore Tajay Myles had a try to put Adrian out in front yet again. Myles made a quick stutter-step at midfield and broke free of the Irish defense, rumbling downhill with Notre Dame’s Packard in close pursuit. Packard made contact with Myles on the try line but couldn’t haul him down. A successful conversion kick solidified the score at 14-7.
The Irish responded in short order, though. With precise passing in its own half, Notre Dame switched the field and set up an Opperman. He ran from midfield, shook off a tackle inside the 22-meter line and grounded the ball on the right side for a try. The Adrian defense made it difficult for Opperman to get to the center of the try line, though, which set up a difficult conversion kick for Opperman in an attempt to tie the game. Kicking into the howling wind with extra distance, Opperman’s conversion fell well short. Adrian still clung to a two-point lead.
Notre Dame pressed for the tying — and potentially winning — score as time dwindled down. With just 55 seconds remaining, good Irish tackling forced a forward pass against Adrian. That set up a scrum for Notre Dame inside the Adrian 22-meter line, but the scrum collapsed for Notre Dame, turning possession over to Adrian. All was not lost yet for Notre Dame, though, as the Irish forced an Adrian penalty just outside the try line. With two seconds remaining and a chance to win the match, Notre Dame made another critical mistake: a knock-on while picking up the ball. It was a sour way to end a close match for the Irish.
Irish fall to Aquinas in quarterfinal
The close loss to Adrian seeded Notre Dame second in Pool C, matching the Irish against Pool D champion Aquinas in the quarterfinals. Despite leading by a try at the half, the Irish could not hold on to beat the Saints.
Notre Dame controlled possession for much of the first half but could not break through the Aquinas defense. The Irish were more unsettled to start this match than in the previous two. There were a number of dropped passes and knock-ons that thwarted scoring opportunities early in the half.
The Irish jitters faded away quickly after junior Dylan Ryan scored the first try of the match. Notre Dame set up the score from a penalty kick at midfield, which was put into touch well inside the Aquinas 22-meter line. With sharp passing off the line-out, senior Sean Moran offloaded to the onrushing Ryan, who muscled his way across the try line. Though Opperman’s conversion kick missed wide right, the Irish still held a 5-0 lead.
The game continued at a somewhat sloppy pace in the second half, and neither team cracked the scoreboard. That changed with under three minutes to play, when the Saints forced an Irish turnover on the left wing. A shovel pass found speedy freshman Archie Fleming flying down the touchline. Whizzing by all the Irish defenders, Fleming cut to the middle of the pitch and grounded the ball across the try line directly behind the uprights. With the conversion kick an easy one, the Saints took a 7-5 lead with 1:50 to play.
The Irish again pushed hard for the tying score but were thwarted by turnovers in the final minute of play. After trailing for 12:10 of the 14-minute contest, Aquinas held on for the 7-5 win and advanced to the semifinals against Notre Dame College.
Indiana wins qualification bracket title; Kentucky wins Open
In their final consolation game, the Irish topped Marian 22-19. The win pulled Notre Dame to an even two wins and two losses on the day.
In the qualifiers bracket championship, Indiana pushed past Adrian 24-5 and then beat Notre Dame College for the title. Adrian ended up taking home Bronze with a 24-14 defeat of Aquinas.
In the open division, the Fighting Irish B team posted a 1-3 record. The Irish were shut out by Wisconsin, 29-0, to open pool play. Notre Dame then suffered a 33-17 loss to West Virginia before bouncing back with a 17-10 win over Trine. In its final consolation match, Notre Dame B dropped a 20-14 contest to Minnesota. Kentucky finished as the open bracket champion over in-state neighbor Louisville. Wisconsin beat Washington University for Bronze.
Full tournament results
QUALIFICATION BRACKET SCORES:
Pool A: Indiana 17, Purdue 5; Marian 12, Purdue 0; Indiana 12, Marian 7 (Indiana wins Pool A).
Pool B: Notre Dame College (OH) 42, Middle Tennessee 0; Michigan 36, Middle Tennessee 0; Notre Dame College 31, Michigan 7 (Notre Dame College wins Pool B).
Pool C: Notre Dame 24, Illinois 14; Adrian 41, Illinois 0; Adrian 14, Notre Dame 12 (Adrian wins Pool C).
Pool D: Aquinas (MI) 39, Western Michigan 7; Ohio State 36, Western Michigan 0; Aquinas 28, Ohio State 0 (Aquinas wins Pool D)
(1A) Indiana 17, (2B) Michigan 0
(1B) Notre Dame College 14, (2A) Marian 5
(1C) Adrian 17, (2D) Ohio State 0
(1D) Aquinas 7, (2C) Notre Dame 5
Indiana 24, Adrian 5
Notre Dame College 19, Aquinas 17
BRONZE MEDAL MATCH
Adrian 24, Aquinas 14
GOLD MEDAL MATCH
Indiana 19, Notre Dame College 7