Few BYU teams have had as much success as the BYU men’s rugby program, which enters 2016 seeking its fifth-straight national championship and sixth overall.
The team went undefeated last season and has only lost three games in the last four years combined, and BYU aims at winning another national title this year despite changes to the squad.
“Now it’s a knowledge that we can win the national championship every year if we want to,” said junior scrum half Luke Mocke.
Junior center Jared Whippy explained that it gets harder and harder to win with each new season. Winning the national championship becomes more difficult at least from a statistical perspective, if not from a rivalry and turnover perspective as well.
One of the major question marks for BYU this season is how they can recover from losing six starters. All-American and captain Kyle Sumision (flanker), All-American Seki Kofe (inside center), All-American Jordan Lowry (ring), Kody Thompson (prop), Kyle Lontine (lock) and Dan Hubert (lock) all finished their eligibility and leave large holes to fill in terms of skill and size.
The team is going to be smaller and younger than in the past, which means another challenge the Cougars face is a lack of experience. Mocke said rugby upgraded to “BYU official sport” status this year and the team was significantly cut down in size (from 70 to 45 players) as a result of NCAA rules.
“So with (that), depth is an issue” Mocke said. “Like having depth if someone gets injured or something like that. But also experience because you want experienced guys in every position. So I think getting some of the younger guys up to par in their roles is going to be a big challenge.”
The Cougars will be adjusting their style of play to accommodate these changes.
Junior fullback/center Joshua Whippy said while they may be a younger team, they are extremely fit and that will translate into a playing style that emphasizes their strength.
“Well we’re trying to play a faster type of rugby,” Joshua Whippy said. “No more breakdowns like those scrums and line-outs. We’re trying to cut that out and limit the turnovers. That’s the goal. Play faster, quicker, clean rugby.”
This means BYU will try to keep the ball in play more often and not rely solely on their forwards to win the ball during scrums, which favor bigger teams.
The team hopes to avoid scrums and line-outs by using the team’s strength and endurance. With the high altitude in Provo, Joshua Whippy said some of the bigger teams that come to Provo will struggle to keep pace with the Cougars.
The team has more than just physical skills going for it.
The culture of the group, described as “the brotherhood,” is fostered by the many players from the Polynesian Islands, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Mocke said these cultures are family oriented and accepting, which helps build team unity. That bond is strengthened by their shared church beliefs and the associations the team has both on and off the rugby pitch.
The culture also helps the team have the right mindset about winning a fifth-straight national championship.
“Since we’ve won it the last four years, every year gets harder,” Jared Whippy said. “Our coach teaches us more than anything that it’s staying humble. I think the focus is that we keep coming to practice and getting better every day … lifting, that’s just the mentality.”
Part of being humble is recognizing the support they receive from the fans. Mocke said the team tries to show their appreciation after every game.
“You’ll see the players on the field for an hour or two talking with fans, chatting to them, taking pictures with family and all that.” Mocke said.