The Texas Longhorns were all hustle Saturday and unfortunately the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame ran out of luck.
The Longhorns have come a long way- in more ways than one. Literally, they drove nearly 40 hours roundtrip to get to Notre Dame’s pitch for their Saturday match-up. After a mix-up with the charter bus, the team was left with five minivans and 1,220 miles that registered drivers would have to take turns driving. Over the course of the weekend, those drivers drove at least eight hours each day- Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
But the Longhorns have also come a long way since the beginning of this season. In February when Texas took on SFA, the Longhorns were down 19 points at the half. A 19-point deficit to a team that is a full notch down from the caliber of Notre Dame. Texas nearly lost that game; it was only saved by a try in the final minute of the match. But the Longhorns are no longer the team they were back in February. The team that took the field Saturday was something even head coach Chris (Buss) Hopps had never seen before. After the game, Buss said that was the best game of rugby he had ever seen Texas play. Had that February team taken the field against the Fighting Irish on Saturday, the Longhorns wouldn’t have delivered a demanding 55-33 victory and wouldn’t be scrambling to make travel arrangements to Annapolis for the second round of the Varsity Cup.
Going into the Texas-Notre Dame match-up, the Longhorns were the clear underdogs. It was understood that Texas was at a disadvantage. Notre Dame is an established team with an impressive history. It is one of only seven teams to have been invited to all four Collegiate Rugby Championships, where as Texas is just now making an appearance on the national scale. But the Longhorns sure knew how to make an entrance.
Out of the four matches played in the first round, Texas was the only upset- the only team to cause a stir in the bracket. Originally, Texas wasn’t given a second glance; they were expected to suffer a likely shut-out loss and begin plans for next season. Instead it was the Longhorns who ran over the Fighting Irish in route to their 55-33 blow-out victory.
Not only was the rugby world shocked, but the Longhorns were a bit taken aback as well. A handful of the team couldn’t wrap their heads around the fact that they had just handily beaten a varsity team, some had faith that they were capable all along, but all were astounded at the level that they performed, considering their experiences in the days leading into to the game.
The Longhorns were scheduled to leave for South Bend on Thursday. On Wednesday president Danny Camara received a call from the University Rec Sports department explaining to him that the charter bus he had reserved, the bus that was to transport the team to South Bend the next day, was no longer available.
“I felt like throwing up,” Camara said. “It was the biggest game in team history and suddenly we had no means of getting there.
With less than 24 hours to find an alternative and very limited options, Camara scrambled to reserve 5 minivans that the players would have to drive themselves to Indiana.
“The change put a lot of strain on the guys driving and there was some increased risk,” Camara said. “But the guys really stepped up to make lemonade out of lemons.”
The team did what they had to do to get to South Bend but 20 hours in a car is not the best way to spend the days leading up to the biggest match in team history.
The majority of the team started their journey to Notre Dame on Thursday at 6:00 p.m. They loaded up the vans and drove eight hours to Wagner, Oklahoma, where they rested for the night. By the time they arrived, around 2:00 a.m., they were fatigued and cramped. After settling into their rooms, they laid down to get as much sleep as possible. But that sleep didn’t last long and it wasn’t the most comfortable; nearly all of the guys were forced to share a bed; two beds and four players to a room. About four and half hours later, the Longhorns hopped back in the vans, groggy and weary, and took off to compete the remaining eleven hour drive.
By the 6:00 p.m. Saturday match, the majority of the team had only about eleven hours of rest since Thursday and had spent 20 hours relatively motionless in a van. Not the best preparation.
The team made their way to the field around 5:00 p.m., and as the Longhorns began to warm up there was an unusually calm mood in the air. Texas was about to play its most important game of the year, possibly ever, but no one was visibly agitated. Earlier in the season, when the team played OU, a non-conference rival game with much less at stake, there was a sense of tenseness and unrest. But on the turf in South Bend the guys were breathing easy. The Longhorns knew what was on the line. They knew a loss here meant their season was over. The seniors understood that without a victory, they would never play rugby at the University of Texas again, if ever. But still the calmness ensued.
Stern, determined faces emerged as Texas lined up to kick off. The Longhorns kicked off and the calmness transformed to urgency. A fumble by the Fighting Irish directed the ball right back into Texas possession. Instantly, a switched flipped in the Longhorns, the sleep-deprived, stiff-legged Texas team was no more. It was as if the only thing in the Longhorns’ sights was the try-zone. Ball carries brushed off tackles to get within a few meters of the try zone. A hand off by John Boudreauz sent captain Peter Hyams flying into the try-zone before a minute of play had elapsed.
“We were just crisp,” freshmen Charlie Schwan said. “We came out here and we knew what we had to do.”
Eight minutes into the first half Texas had already tacked 14 points onto the scoreboard. 11 minutes in the Fighting Irish finally began to respond. But Texas wasn’t interested in losing its lead. Within three minutes, the Longhorns were back in the try zone putting up five more.
At the half Texas was up 36-12- a 24 point lead.
Hyams circled the team up in front of the Texas sideline. His face was stern. As he paced around the center of the circle he explained that just because Texas had the lead didn’t mean Notre Dame was going to roll over. He had seen teams come back from deficits larger than this. The Longhorns were riding a high that could easy be pulled down by the Irish.
But the Texas stayed high in the second half. Senior Rafael Lopez Segovia made a statement as he crashed into the try zone before 5 and a half minutes were up. Texas was not giving up their lead.
“We knew we had got the lead, which was key in this game; get ahead and get control,” Hyams said. “We attacked hard and we ran at them hard so I’m delighted with the way that went.”
By the time the turf had settled and the clock found a resting point at 80:00 minutes, Hyams, Boudreaux, Taylor Hayes, Felix Olazaran, Charlie Schwan and Segovia, had all contributed at least one try to the Longhorns 55 point total. Not only was 55 points the most Texas has put up all season, but it was significantly more than the 33 points Notre Dame earned, effectively ending Notre Dame’s post-season run.
“We probably didn’t expect to score 55 points, you never really can expect to go out and do that,” Hyams said. “But in terms of the physicality and the challenge they presented, we were fully ready for that task.”
What allowed Texas to score 55 points was the lack of ball handling errors combined with an impressive performance by the backs. They stuck to game plan and swung the ball out wide when necessary, leading to four tries in the corners of the try-zone.
“If we stick to our patterns, stick to our game plan, we’re a dangerous team,” Ekongi Yancy said.
But it was more than plays and patterns that sent Texas home with the win.
“Potentially I could never play with these guys ever again, so I just gave it my all and ran at these dudes and it was awesome,” Schwan said. “I can’t even express how proud I am and how happy I am to be a part of this team. It was a great game.”
Although the Fighting Irish were undoubtedly disappointed, both teams gather on the field for post game sandwiches. As the teams sat cross-legged on the turf, the Notre Dame captain and Danny Camara stood in front of the group. Both sides extended congratulations and thanks for a great game, before exchanging gear. Players swapped Longhorn shirts for Fighting Irish jerseys; even coaches made trades.
After all the interchanges had been made and everyone got their fill of sandwiches, the Longhorns climbed back into the vans to make the 20 hour drive back to Austin.
Texas continues its run in the Varsity Cup against Navy on Saturday April 19, in Annapolis, Maryland.