After winning a tight playoff game against Norwich University this past weekend, the women’s rugby team turns its attention to this weekend, when it will face the University of New England (UNE) in the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) Division III championship game, hosted by Harvard University. This is the team’s first championship appearance since moving to NIRA this season.
This past weekend’s semifinal was the Polar Bears’ second time facing Norwich this season, the first of which was a 27-17 victory in early October. However, the Cadets proved formidable opponents, keeping the game tied at seven through the half. Ultimately, a second-half try from Sara Nelson ’22 gave Bowdoin the lead, and the Polar Bears weathered a late offensive from Norwich to hold on for a narrow 12-7 victory.
“It definitely wasn’t an easy game this weekend,” captain Claire Carges ’20 reflected. “We expected a challenge [from Norwich], and it was.”
With the score within one try the entire game, the margin for error was tiny, but Head Coach MaryBeth Mathews was pleased with the team’s performance.
“[Norwich’s] defense was outstanding, but [we] excelled in lineouts [and scrums],” said Mathews. “The [players] won all of [their own], and they took a couple off the other team. It’s really key, especially in championship games, to be able to retain your own possession. So I would think that lineout work was fantastic.”
Playing in a postseason matchup was a new experience for much of the team, which missed the playoffs last season. Mathews acknowledged that nerves were a factor in last week’s game.
“It was sort of like business as usual for [the coaches] because we are so used to going to the playoffs and postseason,” Mathews said. “However, I quickly realized after the game [that] this is a young team, and they haven’t been to the postseason. So there may have been some nerves.”
Carges agreed with this sentiment, but did not identify it as a major weakness heading into the matchup this weekend.
“We’re definitely going to work on bringing nerves down because that was definitely something that we encountered last game that we hadn’t really anticipated,” Carges said. “But I think that’s definitely achievable.”
Nevertheless, the team was able to have strong strategic gameplay this past weekend, which it hopes to bring to the championship.
“I was really proud of the way we [played] tactically,” Assistant Coach James Read said. “Slowing the ball down when there [was] not much time left and … other key decisions [that] we made at the end of the game [were what allowed us] to win.”
These key decisions were vital for the team’s victory over the past weekend, and it will have to keep making those decisions this next weekend to win.
Communication is at the top of Mathews’ priorities for the championship game this Sunday.
“Communication. Talk more,” Mathews said. “[If the players] talk a little bit more to each other on the field—what they see, what they’re doing—it’s going to make life easier for all.”
Read echoed Mathews’ opinion.
“What you’ll start to find is once communication goes up, everyone is more attentive straightaway,” Read said. “And then any little errors that there were should be eradicated.”
From inside the game, Carges also drew attention to Bowdoin’s back line as an area of improvement going into the championship game.
“Last game we played we had some difficulty with specific players on their team in one on one situations,” Carges explained. “We’re changing things up a little bit with that because the game we played last time was very forwards heavy because the backs weren’t able to get the ball out.”
Heading to the championship will be a new experience for many of these players and the program at large. For years, the women’s rugby team competed in New England Small College Rugby Championship (NESCRC), which proved less of a challenge than the current division.
“We were beating most teams by a very large margin,” Carges explains, “We’d be up by 40 or 50 points or something, and it was not really the same level [as it is now in NIRA]”
Mathews is extremely happy with this new league, especially because it is expanding.
“This level of championship experience is going to be so much better than anything [the players] have been to before when we played the USA rugby developmental pathway, just because of the attention to detail and professionalism,” Mathews said. “[In the future,] there will be an addition of more varsity teams [to NIRA], and this postseason competition pathway will grow, and the USA rugby club team pathway will shrink over time.”
The team will face UNE this Sunday, November 17 at 11 a.m. in the NIRA Division III championship game at Harvard’s Mignone Field.