LAFAYETTE, Colo. – College rugby players disappear from the sport following graduation rather than continuing to play at the club level at an alarming rate. However, this past weekend’s Men’s Division I Club National Championship Final featured two 2015 D1A grads who have bucked the dropout trend in order to continue to compete and improve at the highest level.
The Austin Blacks have several veteran players who have played prominent roles in the Blacks’ success in recent years. Still, no club team can stay above water without a consistent flow of new recruits. Two of this year’s brightest new players for Austin are Davenport graduate Knute O’Donnell and recent Indiana alum Antonio Winn.
O’Donnell, a scrum half who was a member of the 2015 Davenport squad that reached the D1A Semifinals and the Cup Final of the College 7s National Championships, made his way to Texas’ capital after being recruited by Blacks Head Coach Tane Jericevich. Winn, on the other hand, a valuable starter on an Indiana team that went undefeated last year in the Big Ten Universities Conference, took a job in Austin after graduating and sought out the Blacks.
O’Donnell has noticed an uptick in size, speed, and skill from his college years compared to a very competitive Red River Rugby Conference, but credits his undergraduate rugby environment for preparing them for one of the most difficult club conferences in the country.
“Because of my experience playing in the Mid-South, I was able to adapt much faster to the competition in the Red River Conference,” explained O’Donnell. “The Red River Conference has loads of talent, and is so competitive that I was immediately impressed when I first moved to Texas. Fast-paced, very physical, and raw talent – very similar to the Mid-South Conference.”
Winn seconds O’Donnell’s feelings regarding transitioning from college to club, and his collegiate program’s ability to prepare him to compete for a spot on one of the country’s best teams.
“Big Ten rugby was very competitive and playing at Indiana allowed me to train with some of the best players in the country,” Winn said. “I think the biggest difference in the Red River Conference is playing with and against players who have competed internationally. They bring so much talent and experience to the field it is difficult to keep up with.”
While O’Donnell earned himself playing time with Austin’s Division I side from the get-go, Winn had to work his way onto the Black’s top side and was one of the club’s true success stories of the season.
Winn, a rangy full back, began the season playing Division III matches before seeing some time on Austin’s DII side. When Blacks first-choice full back Zac Mizell took a contract with PRO Rugby’s Ohio Aviators, a door opened for Winn.
“When I was given the No. 15 jersey for the first time I felt a wide range of emotions,” admitted Winn. “I was excited to get my shot at DI, but I also felt a great deal of pressure trying to fill in for Zac.”
In his debut against the Dallas Harlequins, Winn dotted for Austin’s first try of the match, and has had a stranglehold on the No. 15 jersey since.
“I also must give credit to all the guys from all three squads because regardless of what level my teammates are playing, they are all rugby-smart and have helped me to elevate my play.”
Following an 11-1 season in the Red River, Austin used Club Playoff wins over rivals Dallas Reds and Life West Gladiators to reach its second consecutive Club Championship Final. Unfortunately for the Blacks, the team lost an entertaining shootout against Mystic River, 45-33, in the June 4 Final. The two youngsters in Austin’s back line are still reeling from the National Championship defeat, but enjoyed the overall experience of competing at Club Championships.
“It was unfortunate that we lost, but being inside Infinity Park, stepping on that field and being able to play with some of the best in the country was an unforgettable experience,” noted O’Donnell.
“My hat goes off to Mystic River – they are a great team,” Winn complimented. “It is especially devastating when thinking about veteran players on the team who have waited so long for a Championship. But it was an incredible experience being able to play at Infinity Park with thousands of people watching from around the world.”
Playing for the Blacks keeps roommates O’Donnell and Winn plenty busy, but the two still find time to follow their college teams they were suiting up for just 12 months ago. Winn was “extremely proud of the season my Hoosiers had this fall going undefeated and playing in the National Quarterfinals,” while O’Donnell not only keeps tabs on Davenport, but fellow Panther graduates who, like him, strive to continue to play rugby at its highest level.
“I have stayed in very close relationships with my teammates and coaches from Davenport, whether they are competing in the Mid-South, Pacific Rugby Premiership, or PRO Rugby,” said O’Donnell. “It’s been very cool to see the alumni still playing at elite levels since graduating, and continuing to pursue our dreams.”
There is little rest for the weary, as the two D1A alums plan to help Austin’s sevens team qualify for the 2016 Club 7s National Championships. The first of three Red River qualifying tournaments for Nationals is June 25 at the Far North 7s in Little Rock, Ark.