On a beautiful Sunday afternoon at the Vassar Farm, the men’s rugby team hosted the Tri-State 7s Championship. After dropping their first game to Molloy College, the Brewers battled to within inches of a game two win, but a post-try conversion rattled the crossbar, leaving the Brewers two points shy of topping SUNY New Paltz and eliminating them from contention for single-elimination play. Despite their disappointment, Vassar closed group play with a resounding 24-0 takedown of Bard.
The Farm was blanketed by a clear blue sky as teams from across the tri-state areas did battle on the two neighboring fields. Sporting loud color combinations and designs, schools like William Paterson University (the eventual champions), Seton Hall, Marist and Hofstra created a hectic mural on the Farm’s deep green canvas. The gray and orange digi-camo uniforms of WPU, in particular, were as tough to look at as their wearers were to score on; in winning six straight games to take the Tri-State Title, the Pioneers didn’t allow a single point.
The hosting Brewers—clad in sleek maroon jerseys that made them the aesthetic favorite in every game they played—struggled early. In the first game, Vassar never led and was unable to catch up to the Lions of Molloy, falling 29-12. The Brewers fell behind 12-0 to New Paltz, before storming back to within a two-point conversion of a tie. The conversion attempt fell short, however, and the Brewers were 0-2 on the day when I caught up with them. Encouraged by the improvements made from the first game to the second, sophomore flanker Ali Sadek acknowledged the importance of strategy when faced with an uphill battle, explaining, “A set game plan is super important, especially when other teams are so athletic.”
The cohesion of the team was a consistent theme in the Brewers’ remarks. Although it’s true that emphasizing the need for unity is a cliché in sports, watching rugby sevens, where the field is far more open than in traditional rugby of 15-aside, all it takes is one mistake for an opponent to be racing to the try zone with nothing but daylight ahead of them. As Sadek said about sevens, “A mistake is highlighted, but so is a good decision.”
For non-rugby fans, a comparison could be made between a traditional basketball game and three-on-three, where all the extra space means that offense dominates and each player has more opportunities to make plays with the ball, clamp down on defense or make mistakes. Junior prop Ankit Khosla anatomized the concept to its simplest terms, saying, “It comes down to the individual.”
Prior to the Vassar’s final game against Bard, junior flyhalf Nate Cuson predicted that Bard was already attuned to the importance of a sound gameplan in the face of athletic disadvantages: “It’s going to come down to game awareness. Bard has good shape.” Cuson did his part against the overmatched Raptors, scoring a try and two conversions. The old adage of “look good, play good” apparently held true as well. As Cuson discussed the first two games of the afternoon with me, senior Max Henderson interjected, “Nate looked damn sexy.”
The Tri-State tournament (and the sport of sevens rugby in general) offers an athletic experience unlike any other Vassar can provide. For one, the tackling in the sport represents the kind of physicality that football offers, but without the reckless, head-first blows that prevent football players from retaining their sentience in retirement. Vassar is proud to field 27 varsity sports teams, but without a football team, the next closest thing to a good ole-fashioned tackle a Brewer fan can witness is a fundamentally pristine box-out from a basketball player or a hearty shove from a member of one of the lacrosse teams. We’re still waiting on baseball’s first bench-clearing brawl of the season; until then, rugby holds the monopoly on all Spartan qualities in the Vassar sports world.
Another appealing aspect of sevens rugby is the aforementioned space, both on the field and in the world. The farm, with a haunting treeline as its backdrop, provides fresh air, architectural sparsity and the pure smells of nature that are harder to come by on Vassar’s campus. Furthermore, there are only 14 people on the field at a time, so ball carriers can run a lot further before a defender tackles them.
The tournament format also offers a look at a far greater number of schools, colorways and cultures than any other sport: Vassar doesn’t host many track and field or swim tournaments, and the golf team doesn’t host its first invitational until the weekend of April 20. The fencing team did host Cleveland State and Detroit Mercy in the Vassar Invitational, and basketball inaugurated the Tip-Off Tournament in 2019, but neither of these events drew as many teams as the 16-deep Tri-State event. What’s more, no other team plays in a location as picturesque as the Farm and Ecological Preserve.
Sitting behind the William Paterson bench as the Pioneers dusted Seton Hall 33-0, the energy of the substitutes and coaches reflected their bright orange and gray camouflage. After figuring out how to set up a tripod to film the afternoon’s games, the Pioneers were a swole, full-throated group to be reckoned with. Coaches from Drew University, on the neighboring field, displayed a penchant for running down the sidelines with their players as they drove to the try zone. The New Paltz coach, valiantly trying to praise one member of his flock from a distance of no less than 120 yards, bellowed, “That’s an excellent play!” for everyone but the intended target to hear.
The energy of competition and primal joy of a capital-c Contact sport, set on a pristine Sunday afternoon at the farm, made for an athletic experience that any sports fan would be ill-advised to miss. After an hour and change at this correspondent’s first rugby tournament, a strong argument is raised: Ignore sevens rugby if you want, but the loss is yours.