In the biggest home rugby game in years, Furman will host UNC-Wilmington 1 p.m., Saturday at John Roberts Field.
Both teams boast an undefeated conference record. Furman is 6-0 while UNC-Wilmington is 4-1, with its only blemishing coming at the hands of the Division I South Carolina, the 2013 Southeastern Conference Champions, 22-19.
The winner of the game will be crowned champion of the Southern Rugby Conference’s (SRC) Palmetto Division, which also includes Coastal Carolina, Lander, Citadel and the College of Charleston.
Furman and UNC-Wilmington joined the SRC, a Division II conference, as founding members. But programs took different paths. UNC-W was a standing Division II team while Furman, which had won three Divisional III national championships and finished runner up twice, moved up a division to join SRC.
Since then, UNC-Wilmington has dominated conference play compiling a 22-0 record and has capture all three of the SRC championships. Last year, the Seahawks went onto nationals and finished among the top 10 in the country. For the Paladins, it has been a methodical climb. In 2012, the team finished fifth.Last year, Furman was third.
“From an enrollment perspective, we are the smallest school in the conference,” said Furman Coach John Roberts. “Our rugby scholarship program, which was launched in 2012, has helped us move the needle. Currently, seven guys on our roster receive some rugby aid, and we have been able to bring in three to four quality players each year with the help of this program.”
Jim Wiseman, who stepped down as head coach for UNC-W earlier this year but still has close ties to the program, expects Saturday’s contest to be fierce.
“We have felt for years that Furman was going to close the gap on us,” he said.” While they lack the enrollment numbers the support they get from their alumni and school, plus the commitment of their players and coaching staff, has made them a formidable opponent in our conference.”
The team’s toughest common opponent this season has been Coastal Carolina. The Seahawks narrowly slipped by the Chanticleers Sept. 19 with a 17-10 win. The Paladins scored in the final minute to beat the Chanticleers 25-24 the week before.
Roberts said UNC-W has traditionally played a very physical, control oriented forward-style game. The Paladins like to spread the ball, kick and embrace open play.
“The team that stamps their style on this game will win it,” says Roberts. “We have had this date circled on our calendar for some time. They have been the team to beat. We have been inching toward them, though. And I know our boys want to hand them their first conference loss this Saturday.”