|Bill Arnold Photo|
Even though some teams are just starting conference play, the Rice University Owls have already run through their regular season schedule and come out undefeated. Now the team has plenty of time to hone their skills, up their conditioning and think about the future. Because the Southwest Conference split after last season, the champion is no longer guaranteed a bid into the D-IAA playoffs, but Rice has done everything possible to earn one of four at-large bids.
“We were very disappointed that [Texas, Sam Houston St and Baylor] are no longer in the Southwest conference. It has kind of messed things up for us,” said Rice coach Mario Botha. “I would be very disappointed if they didn't give us a bid, because we are playing good rugby and I think we are playing attractive rugby. I think it's the kind of rugby that people will want to watch, want to see... we're not a very big side. We can't physically dominate a lot of other teams, but we can certainly bring a lot of skill to the game and that's what we try to do.”
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Botha, a native of South Africa that played for the Border Bulldogs in the Currie Cup, has watched a core group of players continue to evolve and expand their game over the last four years, and he knew that the pressure would be ramped up this season where perfection was a must.
|Bill Arnold Photo|
With their backs against the wall, down late to a tough St. Edward's club, Rice picked up huge tries by Brian Graff and Shaun Haby to come away with a tight victory. They've also gotten huge contributions from Matt Kaufman, who had nine tries through the team's first five games.
“Matt Kaufman is having an outstanding season,” Botha said. “I've had to move him to the second row and he's a good second row but it's like having a fourth loose forward on the field, so he does the job of a second row and a loose forward. He has a very high work rate and he's very skilled.”
Last year, Rice's season ended in heartbreak when they fell to the University of Texas, 36-26, in the Southwest Conference Championship. Now Rice holds the conference title and their sights are set on the Round-of-16.
Botha said, “We really are hoping that this isn't the end of our season. We've got a good bunch of kids that have worked very hard to get where they are. They are playing good rugby. Their academic lives at Rice are very very demanding, so for them to be able to take the time and play rugby and train hard, takes a lot of dedication.”