D1A’s newest addition to the college rugby landscape is the Liberty Conference. After being in the works since late 2016, the conference has come together with 17 teams making up three divisions. Iona College and the University of Delaware will join the conference after leaving Rugby East, but the other 15 teams will all be making the jump from D1AA conferences. Top Northeast teams from the Empire and East Coast Rugby Conferences will round out the Liberty Conference, giving college rugby a newfound presence in the Northeast.
“Looking at the overall landscape, when we were contemplating this attempt to enter D1A, we looked at the Northeast and said that it’s somewhat barren and absent from the Division I landscape,” said Liberty Conference Commissioner and Fordham Head Coach Andrew Gheraldi. “We look forward to growing the game in the incredible collegiate markets of Boston, New York City, and the greater Northeast. We may not all be top D1A teams yet, but we are certainly in it for the long haul.”
The expansive new conference will be broken up into three divisions based on location. The I-95 division will consist of Delaware, Fordham, Iona, Rutgers and Stonybrook. Fairfield, Northeastern, UCONN, UMass, URI and Tufts will make up the New England division, while the Empire division with Albany, SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Brockport, SUNY Cortland, Colgate and Syracuse will round out the conference.
Breaking up the conference into divisions should create an easier transition into D1A play, grouping teams together who are close to each other and have experience playing one another. Fall schedules for the Liberty teams will consist of preseason games followed by a regular season with both divisional matches and crossover fixtures and ending in a possible bowl game, allowing teams to keep their schedules flexible while scheduling quality matchups that are close to home. These teams, who are familiar with each other, will now have the opportunity to play at a higher level and fortify rugby’s presence in the area.
“One of the concepts that linked the Liberty teams together was seasonality,” said Gheraldi. “We aren’t necessarily looking to crown a champion in year one, we’re looking to grow the game by playing a complex schedule and ending with an exciting bowl matchup.”
The Fordham team heads into the fall with a diverse schedule including a preseason matchup against James Madison University, a rivalry game against Columbia and Liberty crossover games against teams like Fairfield. After a 5-5 finish last fall and a strong sevens season, Fordham will look to build on its momentum in its first season representing the new conference.
Meanwhile, Iona College will take full advantage of the new schedule flexibility to test its mettle against top D1A competition, with a crossover game against Army out of Rugby East and a November trip to California to meet defending D1A National Champions Saint Mary’s in a bowl game.
“We still have some juggernauts in front of us, like Saint Mary’s, but I think we’ll have a good season in the new conference,” said Iona Head Coach Bruce McLane. “We have some real good players coming in, and we have a strong mix of youth and experience.”
With most of these teams being club teams rather than varsity programs, Liberty Conference squads will compete in D1A 15s in the fall and sevens in the spring, much like Big Ten Universities and Rugby East teams have in the past.
On August 10, the Liberty Conference experienced its first official competition when the Liberty Conference All-Stars met up with the Republic of Texas All-Stars in Bermuda. Selected in the spring, the Liberty All-Stars came together from 11 different schools to compete. The Texas All-Stars captured the Inaugural Collegiate All-Star Rugby Cup, winning 33-12.