Illini men’s rugby gears up for spring season

It was 8:40 p.m. at the Irwin Indoor Football Facility on Monday, and although practice did not officially start until nine, numerous players on the men’s rugby team were already out on the turf doing drills. All of them realize just how important this season is for their program.

The spring season always brings changes for Illinois rugby. Starting with the first practices in January, the team splits into two squads: the rugby 15s and the rugby sevens (the numbers designate the number of players on the field for each team). Rugby is increasing in popularity throughout the United States and the world. In 2009, the IOC voted to have rugby sevens included in the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Brazil, the sport’s first appearance at the Games since 1924.

The second half of the season will be especially important for the sevens team this year. The Illini will be hosting the Big Ten championships starting April 18 at the FAR fields in Urbana.

Team president Rich Daniels understands the opportunity his team has been given and has made sure to remind his teammates of its importance as well.

“We’re going to want to write that date down in the calendar in bold font,” Daniels said of the Big Ten championships.

Though the team has not played a competitive match in weeks, each player on the team has his own way of keeping sharp in practice. The team opens its competitive season with a tournament at Notre Dame beginning March 28th.

Mario Lozano missed all of the fall season with a broken foot and his path to becoming match-fit again has been longer than most of his teammates.

“It’s important for me just to work on the basics as much as I can,” Lozano said. “I have to have the fundamentals right before I get into the more flashy stuff.”

Lozano’s teammate and sevens team captain, John Huguelet, is also honing individual aspects of his game. However, Huguelet is more concerned with an area of his game that impacts his team as much as it does himself.

“Rugby is such a team sport that when I try to improve myself, I’m really improving the team as a whole,” Huguelet said. “I need to be able to communicate effectively so that everybody can work and improve together.”

Illinois will play in two Big Ten tournaments at Michigan and Iowa in April before it hosts the Big Ten championships. Familiar rivals like Michigan, Indiana, Ohio State and Wisconsin are all among the list of the Illini’s opponents for those tournaments. Michigan and Ohio State were two of 20 teams to make it all the way to last year’s USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship.

Despite the growing American interest in rugby and the opportunities available to Big Ten competitors, the rugby team struggles to find new players on campus who can make the time commitment.

“Sometimes it’s hard to get people who are really busy. They may have a lot of talent but they can’t dedicate themselves as much to the game,” Daniels said. “It’s hard to obtain that legitimacy (for a club sport), but that legitimacy comes with more people playing.”

The team is still looking for members. Anyone interested in playing rugby this season at Illinois should contact Rich Daniels at [email protected]

The Illini’s first spring exhibition games are this weekend at the South Side Irish Whiskey Tens tournament at the Dan Ryan Woods in Chicago, Ill.

[email protected]