Top teams from Red River’s North, South set for action

D1A Rugby: Top teams from Red River’s North, South set for action
Photo Credit: Norma Salins (left)

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Key matchups from Red River’s North and South Divisions will be in the balance Saturday, Nov. 12. South Division leader Texas A&M will visit 2016 Conference Champions LSU, while the North’s top two sides, Baylor and Oklahoma, will do battle in Norman, Okla.

No team gave last year’s undefeated LSU team more trouble than the Aggies during the 2015-16 season. After spotting the Tigers 24 points to open the match, Texas A&M stormed back but eventually fell, 32-30.

“We know that each we time we take the field against them we are in for a tough game,” said LSU lock Zach Stratton of his team’s rivalry with the Aggies. “The way they spread the field and integrate their forwards into the back line proves to be a productive strategy that will test our defense.”

One of the A&M forwards that has been a key piece between linking the pack and the back line is blindside flanker Alex Demblon. The Aggies captain is in the midst of his final semester on campus and playing with an invigorated abandon.

“His leadership has been exemplary as usual and because he’s graduating in the fall there has been an extra element of energy in his game – definitely not leaving anything out there,” Texas A&M Head Coach James Lowrey said of Demblon. “He has been a real glue for the boys.”

The Aggies’ soon-to-be graduated loose forward is in form, but Texas A&M hasn’t exactly needed Demblon to be playing lights-out rugby. The team has opened its season with a 37-5 win over Texas before scoring 198 points in back-to-back blowout wins over Houston.

Saturday’s fixture against LSU should more closely resemble last year’s nail-biter than the Aggies’ one-sided wins to open the season. Still, Texas A&M doesn’t feel ill prepared given its lack of competitive contests up to this point.

“The club as a whole has prepared each week as every game is a big game,” Lowrey said. “The boys want to achieve big things, and that has spurred everyone to want to be apart of that first-team lineup and contributing to the club’s journey. Staying humble, working hard and focusing on what we want to do on the field has served us well.”

The game is no less important for LSU. The Tigers have plans to hold onto their Red River title for another season. In order to do that, they’ll need to stay ahead of Texas A&M in the South standings to reach the Red River Championship game.

“To us each game this year has emphasis, but any game against A&M has a bit more intensity,” admitted Stratton. “We are not focused as much on the conference standings as we are winning one game at a time. The standings will sort out in the end.”

The South Division showdown will kick off Saturday at noon CT and will be broadcast live. Fans can watch the match here.

Oklahoma finished second in the Red River last year, while Baylor was the conference’s most improved team a season ago. This year, the two squads appear the frontrunners to represent the North Division at the Red River Championship match.

The Bears won just one game during the 2014-15 season. Last year Baylor tripled its win total, and a win over the Sooners would match its three-win mark from last season after just three games. Add the two quality nonconference wins the team has picked up this fall and Baylor is off to an unprecedented 4-0 start.

“We’ve been proud of our 4-0 start but we are taking no time relishing in our success,” said second-year Baylor Head Coach Mason Hering. “It’s on to the next job each week. The team is extremely focused on winning the Red River, and each upcoming opponent is another test for us. Our team leaders do a good job of making sure players are accountable and committed every day.”

It’s a good thing Baylor isn’t overlooking Oklahoma, too. The Sooners have a number of All-Conference performers in their forward pack, as well as one of the best playmakers in the conference in scrum half Manny Soto. The wealth of talent in Norman makes it all the more surprising that Oklahoma dropped its game against a winless Texas Tech side after easily handling TCU.

“We are young in many spots, and I think we were too happy with our early results,” Oklahoma Head Coach Doug Neubauer said of the team’s inconsistent start to its conference season.

Like Oklahoma, the Bears have a relatively young lineup, too. However, there are a few elder statesmen, like powerful eight man Pete Hamm, who understands it will take a great effort to reverse last year’s 21-14 outcome in favor of the Sooners.

“Oklahoma is a very skillful and athletic squad,” added Hering. “They have quite a few weapons, both in the forwards and backs. I think we’ll need to improve our communication on defense and solidify our set piece if we want to pull out a win against them.”