By Joseph Santoliquito
Philadelphia, PA (CBS) —It’s not a bunch of hooligans getting together bashing heads, then downing a keg of beer and going out and raising hell. Rugby is the fastest growing sport in the United States today, and the Philadelphia area will once again get treated this weekend to the nation’s best in the Collegiate Rugby Championships, sponsored by USA Rugby, at PPL Park in Chester.
There will be 20 teams competing, including locals Temple, St. Joseph’s, Penn—and now Villanova, rounding out the five pools of four teams each. And Wildcats coach Larry McManus couldn’t be happier.
The Wildcats are replacing Army and before one of the organizers could complete his sentence about stepping in for Army—McManus accepted. The big difference, however, is that Villanova plays rugby at the Division II level. This is a sevens tournament that features two-time national champion Dartmouth, and stud programs like Life College, Notre Dame, Arizona, California and Penn State.
This is the fourth year of the event—with the last three being held at PPL Park. There is a growing interest in rugby sevens because it will be an Olympic sport in 2016 in Rio.
“We’re a darkhorse in this; we’re a Division II program going up against some major Division I programs with high school all-Americans,” McManus said. “Villanova’s goal is to play at the Division I level. What I’m excited about here is exposure for the Villanova program. Rugby is a very legitimate sport. It’s the fastest growing sport in the United States and rugby sevens will be an Olympic sport in Rio in 2016—so there could be some future Olympians playing this weekend.
“There is a stereotype that we battle, though—and it’s something we battle every day. That’s until people see the game. It’s football without the pads, and sevens is about speed and getting more, and more popular by the day.”
McManus, whose staff includes Villanova alums Pat Boyle and P.J. Maher, along with Kenny Smith, has some talent on his team in senior Henry Walker, junior Artie Teeter and freshman Tyler Amspacher.
But the task to advance will be challenging. Villanova opens against Navy on Friday, then plays UCLA and St. Joseph’s in its pool.
“We’re feisty, well coached and mentally tough; this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity before 18,000 fans,” McManus said. “If you would have asked me 30 years ago to play in a major stadium with 18,000 fans in the seats for a rugby game, I would have said that you’re nuts. But that’s how far rugby has come.
“Temple is probably the best of the local teams. They have experience over the last two years in the tournament. Penn is very good—but based on experience, I’d say Temple, with Penn right in there. I hope we can be the Rocky Balboa story of this thing and hopefully we can shock the world. We open with Navy, but we have St. Joe’s, who we lost to early this year by two—and if there is one game we’d like to win, it’s the Holy War against St. Joe’s.”
Joseph Santoliquito is a contributing sports blogger for CBS Philly.