‘3 years in the making’: USF Rugby’s path to FCC Championship game

The Rugby Club beat the Gators 65-20 in the FCC semifinals. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/ Derek Carlson

The USF Rugby Club were seen as the underdogs by The Sideline Whisperer, which predicted that they would get blown out 40-17 by UF in the FCC semifinal on April 1.

During practice the Thursday before the semifinals, the Bulls saw the review. Rather than being discouraged, the team was frustrated that their talent was questioned.

Senior tight head prop and club president Matthew Bradley said the prediction was baffling and did not consider their injury struggles throughout the year.

“The people that make these predictions don’t see all of that. They just kind of look at the scores and that’s how they make their predictions,” Bradley said.

USF Rugby’s preparation, motivation and health helped them demolish the Gators in the semifinals 65-20. By doing so, the Bulls moved on to the finals to take on FSU on Saturday.

While the team overcame hurdles like injury, the road to the championship was longer than just this regular season and two playoff games. It was paved by the hard work the players put in to get better off the field.

Bulls coach Sean Masse said “around 10” of their 15 starters had been dealing with injuries when they lost 34-14 to UF in the regular season. He also said one of their players sustained injuries due to a minor car accident.

Club vice president and fly half Jon Carlo Salani was also dealing with a bone bruise and ankle sprain during the regular season matchup. However, when the team got healthy in time for the postseason he said that the particular prediction fueled their workouts in the days prepping for the semifinals.

“Seeing [the prediction] at the last practice before the semi-finals, I told everyone ‘Just remember that they think we’re going to lose 40 to 17 these guys.’ That was the motivation we needed so I’m happy that people keep doubting us,” Salani said. “They can keep doing that, it just pushes us farther.”

As a club program, South Florida does not receive the same funding as varsity sports. Because of this, they are only partially funded by the USF Athletics Department. Meal plans, athletic scholarships and access to athletic facilities are not granted to them.

To function, USF Rugby relies on donations from family, friends and alumni to be able to travel to events such as the FCC championship. The team has received over $20,000 in donations and smashed their season goal of $7,500.

Without the full backing of the athletic department, commitment on the players’ part is all the more important because certain amenities of typical student-athletes are not present.

In a typical week, the team designates four days a week to practice. On Monday, they watch film on the previous game as well as their upcoming opponent. From Tuesday through Thursday, they run sets on the field.

Those four designated days do not take into account the extra work put in during off days. When they are not practicing, the players on their own accord lift weights as well as coordinate a time to watch professional rugby together.

Matthew Bradley has been with the team since the 2018-2019 season. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/DEREK CARLSON

Bradley said the team is more self-efficient compared to last season.

“I think that’s what’s made us so successful is we don’t have to drag guys to the gym. We see in our messages guys are asking each other to go to the gym all the time. They’re wanting to get better not just by themselves, but as a team,” Bradley said. “It’s just been a huge change, especially from last year.”

Their qualification in the championship game is also a testament to the three years the program spent rebuilding after the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the team was in the middle of defending the FCC title they won in the spring of 2019.

Masse said that the lockdown made it difficult to coordinate team activities and build chemistry.

“When you take a year or two away from each other, no matter how many Zoom meetings or teams calls you have, it’s not the same as being face to face playing matches with each other, watching film, being in the gym and building connections.”

After three years of recruiting, experimenting and building those bonds, they qualified for the same title game on April 15.

Salani has been with the program since 2019 and he has absorbed the knowledge from the seniors that came before him. His goal is to pass that knowledge on to the younger players in hopes that they buy into the team culture of hard work.

“This is three years in the making for me at least. This hard work on and off the field…we have a lot of talent but hard work beats talent, I stand by that, and we put in that work,” Salani said. “I think that’s why we made it so far this season.”

Along with making the FCC championship, the Club will participate in the CRC 7s tournament which only 32 teams in the country compete in. They also qualified for the CRAA 15s in Houston in early May.

Playing in tournaments such as these could be nerve-racking with the amount of eyes on them. But Bradley and Salani have prior experience before this season. Bradley said he normally takes time to compose himself before high-intensity matchups.

“I just kind of zone everything out…I just kind of had to focus on my job and the game. It kind of does wipe out the nerves.” Bradley said. “It’ll be different, though. but like I played at some bigger tournaments before, so playing in front of a big crowd isn’t really anything different.”

As for the younger players on the roster, Masse said that team goes through many reps in practice so that their performance becomes second nature.

“The goal is that when they get to these larger venues and the larger events, and have a lot of eyes on them, those eyes aren’t really a factor in their performance. They go play the thing that we’ve been teaching in the play, week after week and month after month,” Masse said. “So I think they’ll be ready for all of these events.”

USF Rugby will compete in the FCC championship against FSU on Saturday at 6 p.m. The match takes place at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. It will be broadcast on the FCC Rugby Youtube channel.