Men’s rugby seniors leave behind legacy of championship wins

by Kaitlyn Lees | 6/2/20 2:00am

Source: Courtesy of Andrew Skow

As one of Dartmouth’s most successful club sports, the men’s rugby team is no stranger to victory. The Dartmouth Rugby Football Club increased its consecutive streak of Ivy League XV Championship wins to 12 this past November. The team also competes outside the Ivy League, traveling across the U.S. to take on some of the country’s top teams in both fifteens and sevens competition. The DRFC took home back-to-back USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships in 2011 and 2012. The Class of 2020 has only added to this long tradition of excellence in rugby over its four years competing for the DRFC. 

The DRFC is well known in U.S. rugby circles for its championship history and prominent alumni, including former U.S. rugby sevens player and head coach Alex Magleby. The team’s motto — “play for not only those wearing the jersey, but also those before you” — exemplifies the program’s strong sense of tradition. 

Co-captain Luke Bienstock ’20 recalled looking up to former Dartmouth rugby players like Nate Brakeley ’12, who was chosen to represent the U.S. at the 2020 World Cup in Japan. Fellow co-captain Patrick Sheehy ’20 noted that Dartmouth offers one of the “best combos” of strong academics and a high level of competitive rugby for prospective students. 

“You really realize you’re part of a very old tradition, and you want to continue it for the next class,” Bienstock added. “Unlike a varsity program where there’s a coach telling you what to do, it’s student-run to a very high degree.”

Like the varsity women’s rugby team, the DRFC trains interested students who do not have a rugby background before coming to campus. Bienstock credited the coaching staff for their ability to create great rugby players from athletes who come to the team without prior rugby knowledge, including Parker Hall ’20 and Gyorgy Brevnov ’20. 

“It really gives us an advantage,” Bienstock said. “These guys are a crucial part of the team.”  

Head coach James Willocks credited the senior co-captains for their leadership over their four years with the DRFC. 

“They really embraced the opportunity to drive the program forward and they certainly did,” Willocks said. 

Primary captain Mason Koch ’20, alongside Rafael Brantley ’20, Brevnov, Hamilton Day ’20, Hall, Andreas Hansen ’20, Andrew Joubert ’20, Brendan Murphy ’20 and Patrick O’Neill ’20, round out the DRFC’s Class of 2020. 

Sheehy felt that his class came in with more rugby experience than is typical for a group of Dartmouth rugby freshman.

“As our class developed more and more into the Dartmouth rugby tradition, we learned how to blend that into the overall communal experience,” he said.  

Bienstock discussed the team’s position as a club sport “straddling a weird line” between being competitive versus social.  

“We’re trying to help figure out where the club should be,” Bienstock said. “Given our success off the field, it’s definitely moving in a direction that resembles more of a varsity program, but at the same time, we’re still keeping true to the tradition of the club.” 

According to Koch, the team’s success comes from a winning combination of its nearly 70-year history, coaching staff and alumni support that enables them to attract top rugby players. He also highlighted the camaraderie and friendship formed between team members, specifically during preseason and their year-long training. 

“Put all that together [and] it ends up in some really good rugby being played,” Koch said. “We’re able to compete with the Ivies pretty handily and then also [compete] at the top level with other teams around the country.”

During the Class of 2020’s freshman year spring break trip, the DRFC beat the UCLA Bruins’ top-ranked squad, 22-17. 

Sheehy described how the team has cultivated an atmosphere of “buying in” and committing to team success. In the 2019 Ivy League XV Championship final against Brown University, as the game wound down in bad weather, the team came together with what Sheehy thought was one of its most resilient defensive stands of the season to buckle down and secure the championship. 

Reflecting on the past four years, Koch cited a loss in the D1AA National Championship to the University of Mary Washington as a particularly important DRFC memory, as the team “turned that loss into a lot of motivation.” 

The next year, the team won the D1AA National Championship and a national sevens tournament in Las Vegas in a successful junior season. After wins against Utah State University, Syracuse University and the University of New Mexico, the DRFC earned the No. 1 seed at the Las Vegas Invitational. Dartmouth continued with wins over St. Joseph’s University and Utah State before defeating the University of Colorado 20-5 in the final to walk away with the title. 

Bienstock pointed to the Las Vegas final as his favorite on-field memory. As the Invitational took place at the same time as a professional tournament between national teams, the final took place in between the professional matches at the UNLV stadium before a crowd of 30,000, according to Bienstock. 

“It was surreal. You felt like a professional athlete,” Bienstock said. “College rugby can be pretty rag-tag sometimes, and other moments, it’s pretty professionalized. It felt incredibly rewarding to be able to do that with [my] best friends.” 

The team put together a strong senior season despite being cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fall featured a 57-7 win over Brown, 70-0 and 71-7 wins over Harvard University, a 33-17 win over the University of Pennsylvania, an 88-0 win over Princeton University and a 120-7 win over Yale University. The DRFC also faced top non-conference opponents in the United States Military Academy and the Pennsylvania State University, losing 29-22 and 23-18, respectively. The seniors’ final season culminated in the 18-12 victory against Brown to win the Ivy League XV Championship, a fitting end to an excellent four years for the Class of 2020.

“It’s guys wanting to work hard for each other,” Willocks said. “The results are a reflection of the investment they’ve put into it.” 

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