It was with a mixture of trepidation and excitement that the Harvard Rugby Club boarded their team bus for their annual trip to Philadelphia for Wharton’s “Hogfest” Tournament. A year ago, the team dominated the rest of the MBA field, capturing the team trophy with a final combined score of 137-0.
This year was different, however. Expectations were high, but after losing a talented second-year class many wondered how the team would react when faced off against quality opponents from other MBA programs. Where was the cohesion and group camaraderie that so distinguished last year’s squad? When asked to dig deep would this team have the courage to respond with the punch-you-in-the-face determination of last year’s group?
Fortunately, these questions and many more were unanswered in dramatic fashion over the weekend. The headlines speak for themselves: Harvard again captured the championship cup, and for the second consecutive year did not give up a single try (or touchdown in American football parlance). Adding up the scores from the previous two years, the men from Harvard have now won 11 consecutive Hogfest tournament games with an aggregate score of 244-6.
Headlines, however, can be deceiving. And this year’s Wharton tournament was certainly no cakewalk. With two Harvard teams competing, an “A” squad and a “Barbarian” team, fresh legs were few and far between. Regularly out-weighed by an average of 40-50 pounds per individual, this year’s unit had to rely on a scrappy, smash-mouth style of play that only a true rugby purist would appreciate.
In their first match, Harvard was determined to set the tone early. Against a tough Columbia squad, the RFC marched the opening kick-off down the field in methodical fashion. Jeff “The Gladiator” Todd (HLS) hurdled himself over the try-line for the first score, and by the match’s end, Thomas “Mitchapalooza” Connelly (OD) and the Big Cat, Saul de la Guardia (HLS) had added scores of their own to complete the game 25-0.
Game 2 pitted the RFC up against their bitterest rivals from Wharton, in a prelude to the tournament’s championship game. With many of Wharton’s best players watching from the sideline, Harvard still struggled early on. Clinging to a 3-0 lead with less than two minutes to go, Wharton tied the game on a penalty kick. With many observers expecting the team to concede the tie, the RFC showed spectacular heart in putting together their best drive of the tournament. Superstar Thomas Connelly (OD) shook off two Wharton defenders in the corner of the try-zone to seal the game and Harvard left the field victorious by a final score of 8-3.
In the afternoon’s final matches against Cornell and Widener Law, the squad continued their superb team play. Perhaps most surprising was the fluid form displayed by the squad’s backfield. Dave “Kate” Winslow (OA), Jeff “Scorps” Bohl (OB), and freshmen superstars Quan “Mr. Myagi” Nguyen (NF), and Stephane Heuze (NB) were untouchable, racing up and down the field, darting thru the opposing line, and seemingly toying with their opposition at will. Fierce rucking by Jasper “Gazpacho” Camacho (OC), Billy “The Kid” Soares (HMS), and Chris “S&M Man” Dervan (KSG) provided clean ball for scrum-halfs Flint Macgregor (NE) and Tony “Mafioso” Frangie (NB) all afternoon. By the end of the day, Harvard had out-hustled their opponents by the score of 20-0 (Cornell) and 17-0 (Widener Law), leaving the pitch with a #1 seed and in good spirits for the following day’s games
The tournament’s second day started much too early for many members of the RFC. Despite two first-round byes and a direct seeding in the semi-finals, the morning opener, a rematch against Columbia, demanded a focus and clarity that was difficult to muster after the previous evening’s festivities. Summoning the strength of a champion, the RFC once again defeated a physical Columbia squad, with Jeff Todd (HLS), Captan Carl “Lavos” Lavin (OE), Stephane Heuze (NB), and Jonathan Krautmann (OJ) each scoring tries. Notable in the win was the team’s expert line-out execution with Josh “Ram-Man” Bresler (OE) throwing pin-point passes to Pascal “Turbo” Ambrosi (OF) on seemingly every possession. New addition Kevin “the General” Releford (OB) was an intimidating presence and bloodied more than a few would-be tacklers on his regular romps through the Columbia secondary. When the dust had settled, Harvard had secured their ticket to the championship, outlasting Columbia, 29-0.
In the tournament’s final game, few were surprised to see Wharton, who had narrowly escaped Cornell in the afternoon’s other semi-final, squared off against the men of the Harvard RFC. Over the years the two squads have developed a healthy respect for one another. Both teams play a physical, punishing style of rugby and have the athletes to stretch a defense if the other team is not committed to owning the ruck on every play. With so many hard-fought, close games few could have confidently predicted the outcome of this year’s final battle.
Five minutes into the championship, however, momentum shifted dramatically to favor the Wharton squad. Harvard captain, Carl “Lavos” Lavin (OE), the undisputed leader on the field, was forced to the sideline with a torn calf muscle. Thirty second later tragedy struck again as Harvard’s heart & soul, Kevin Releford (6′ 2″, 245 lbs.) slammed headfirst into a Wharton player, knocking his opponent out and forcing himself to the sideline with a severe concussion. Reserves Nori “Nor-dogg”Kodama (OE) and David Burt (NI) filled in admirably, but the muted looks on the faces of members of the RFC hid a deep-seated uneasiness.
For one last time, however the men of Harvard rugby were able to dig deep. Returning alum Jay Klug (HBS ’04) exhorted his teammates to keep their focus. Newcomer Stephane Heuze (NB) continued his stellar play and the team showed a ferocity in the rucks and line-outs that has not been seen in recent years. The finals score, an 8-3 victory for the Harvard RFC, was wholly indicative of a tough, tough game against a worthy opponent.
Special thanks go out to 2005-06 sponsor Apax Partners (www.apax.com)