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High-Profile Rugby Clubs Come to Dartmouth

Hanover — For a team-bonding exercise this week, members of the U.S. Collegiate All-American rugby team took to the Connecticut River for some canoe paddling. Coach Matt Sherman didn’t dare join them, and the decision to stay on land might very well have kept him from going swimming.

“I wouldn’t go in, but they had a blast out there,” said Sherman, who doubles as the Stanford University coach. “One of the canoes tipped over, but I’m sure they didn’t mind. That kind of stuff is important, that kind of off-the-field interaction for camaraderie. We only have a short time together.”

After four days of training at Massachusetts’ Merrimack College, the team gathered in Hanover beginning Monday. Comprised of 23 players from 15 college teams, the All-American first team is preparing to host Cambridge (England) University today at 1 p.m. in a XVs (15-on-15) match at Dartmouth College’s Garipay Field. At 3 p.m., the U.S. Collegiate All-American second team will take on Ontario’s Collegiate Barbarians, comprised of university students from throughout that Canadian province.

Dartmouth rugby personnel are thrilled to be hosting Cambridge, a 142-year-old side steeped in tradition. The team is famous for its annual battle against English rival Oxford, held each December and known as “The Varsity Match.”

Dartmouth director/technical advisor Alex Magleby is happy to be welcoming Cambridge to town.

“England is the place where rugby developed, and Oxford and Cambridge have a tremendous rugby tradition,” Magleby said while the All-Americans held a meeting inside Garipay’s field house before practice Thursday. “We think we have a great field, a great facility here and they’re going to enjoy playing here. Both Cambridge and Dartmouth pride ourselves on the student-athletes we have an on having the game of rugby support the academic mission.”

The All-American side for the third straight year includes Madison Hughes, a Dartmouth senior-to-be and captain. He helped the Big Green win its 15th Ivy League championship in the last 17 years this spring, then go on to reach the quarterfinals in both the 15s and sevens national college tournaments. Dartmouth won back-to-back sevens national championships in 2011-12.

Hughes, a London native who has dual citizenship thanks to his mother’s Massachusetts roots, has been playing rugby since age 7.

“I love the mental challenge of the game and how it combines with all of the physical pressure,” said Hughes, a fullback. “There’s a lot of running and endurance, but it’s so much of a tactical battle at the same time. And there’s so much interplay between you and your teammates, it’s almost like basketball in that way, but on such a wide open field.”

Hughes will be squaring off against former teammate Nate Brakeley, a 2012 Dartmouth graduate who played for the Big Green before suiting up for Cambridge while earning his masters degree there. Brakeley, who now lives and works in New York City, became the second-ever Dartmouth alum to play in the Cambridge-Oxford game when he played second row in the 2012 Varsity Match. Hughes attended the game as a spectator.

Those who play in the prestigious game receive the distinction of becoming either a “light blue,” if playing for Cambridge or a “dark blue” for those who suit up for Oxford.

Brakeley is the first “light blue” from Dartmouth and only the second Dartmouth alum to play in the Cambridge-Oxford game. Vince Jones, a 1952 graduate, went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship and played in the 1954 game.

Brakeley will present his Cambridge jersey to Dartmouth in a halftime ceremony today.

“It’s a tremendous honor to play in this game, and pretty surreal,” Brakeley said in a phone interview while driving to Hanover from New York on Friday morning. “I thought I’d hung up the boots for my (rugby) career, so to be invited back for this is going to be pretty awesome.”

While Cambridge’s season began last fall, the U.S. Collegiate All-Americans have had limited time to jell. Sherman hopes his team will keep their play simple, but effective, this afternoon.

“Given the short time we’ve had to get everybody on the same page, we’re going to come out with a pretty basic package. We want to make sure everyone understands the terminology and the system,” Sherman said.

There is familiarity among some players on the U.S. team. It features six returning players, including five forwards and the dynamic Hughes.

“That’s always the biggest challenge when you’re playing on select teams, getting to the point where everyone trusts each other and everyone has each other’s back,” Hughes said. “For the short time we’ve had together, I think this group has some really good chemistry. We’re all excited to play.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.