Finding and conditioning players are a necessary part of athletics. Speed, game intelligence and drive are traits coaches desire, but athletes don’t have to be grown in their respective sport.
This is the case for many SIU men’s rugby team members, whose roster consists of ex-football players, wrestlers, swimmers, tennis players and various athletes from other sports.
This culmination of players proved their capabilities as they went into overtime Feb. 16 against the University of Alabama but lost 19-19, 2-1 in a drop- goal shootout. The best-of-three shootout was tied through both team’s first kickers, but it ended when the final Saluki kick went wide.
Team president and senior captain Dan Unes said the team’s performance was surprising considering its competition.
“They are a Division I AA team, and we are a Division II team, so they have a lot more people to choose from,” Unes said. “Going down there we honestly didn’t expect to win, and we played a really good game. They didn’t expect us to come out like that.”
The game was tied 19-19 after the clock expired. It would have gone into overtime in a normal match, but it came down to the drop-goal shootout since it was a friendly match.
Despite the loss, Unes said facing an opponent like Alabama is beneficial to the program.
“It was really fun going to play against a big school like that,” Unes said. “That’s another reason that people like to be on our team, because they get to travel with the team and go places that they never would normally.”
Despite Alabama having almost double the student body of SIU, the Salukis matched well against a team with a larger potential talent pool.
John Schiller, a senior from Wood Dale studying civil engineering and rugby player, said his transition from the line of scrimmage to the rugby scrum was not difficult.
“Honestly, starting off I really didn’t know the rules,” he said. “I think I played it more like football since that is what I played my entire life. I had problems playing the ball getting all sorts of penalties, but as time went on I got a little better understanding of the game. I think it was a
relatively smooth transition, but it took me a little while longer than I would have liked.”
Along with adopting a new set of rules, the rugby’s speed and teamwork can prove to be a challenge on its own, said former lacrosse player Stephen Kuhn.
“In Lacrosse, when you get the ball it’s just you and the ball and what you’re going to do with the ball,” he said. “You can depend on your teammates, but you can take (the ball) for a good solid minute, but with rugby you have maybe three seconds before you have to decide what you have to do. It’s all about getting a flow and not letting your thinking slow you down.”
Coach Robert Reyes said rugby has different demands than some of the better recognized U.S. sports.
“It’s a continuous achievement,” he said. “I can only say that the closest sport that I can see physically to it would be wrestling, but there you are only going six to nine minutes where this is 80 minutes.” The continuous play can be difficult for some players to make the transition to rugby.
The players said it takes a special athlete to make the jump from another sport.
Unes said the players who make the easiest transition are those who don’t play on a field, but rather on a mat.
“The best defenders are wrestlers from high school and college,” Unes said. “In football, you can just throw the shoulder and make as much contact as fast as you can, and that doesn’t work in rugby. (To avoid penalties) you have to have good fundamentals (if ) you want to make a good tackle.”
The Salukis will strive for solid tackles when they travel to St. Louis to face Principia College in a 1 p.m. matchup Saturday.