This week the Air Force Academy and the University of Arizona have nonconference rivalry matches to look forward to. Air Force hosts Navy Friday afternoon, while Arizona State will visit Sitton Field on the U of A campus to tangle with the Wildcats.
While both matches are considered traditional games and both D1A teams face opponents worthy of their undivided attention, the two rivalries are also quite different.
For the Air Force Academy, in rugby and in all sports, competitions against fellow military academies equates to the biggest stage of sport for these young men and women.
“Whenever we play another military academy in any sport it’s huge,” explained Air Force Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer. “But especially in rugby, with Navy and Army both having really good programs, getting a win is a big deal for us.”
Additional pride has enhanced the rivalry in the form of the Shea Cup, which now titles the match as well as the trophy for the victors. The Cup is named after Kevin Shea, a former Air Force Academy rugby player who eventually switched commissions to the Marine Corps and went on to play for Navy’s active military rugby team. Tragically, Shea was killed while stationed in Iraq, but his memory and unique relationship with both the Air Force and Navy rugby programs lives on.
Air Force currently holds the Shea Cup after beating Navy in Colorado Spings, Colo., two years ago. Last fall, the match was canceled due to the government shutdown. Air Force knows they have a considerable challenge ahead of them if they want to retain the Shea Cup.
“It’s going to be a tough game for us,” said Muehlbauer. “Navy is always big and well coached. [Navy Head Coach] Mike Flanagan is a buddy of mine, and he and his entire staff are really good coaches.”
Unlike some rivalries, these two military academies have the utmost respect for one another. The admiration for their opposition will be apparent once the final whistle blows Friday.
“As much as you want to tear them apart and physically dominate them during the match, after the match the guys know they are more alike than different,” Muehlbauer said. “So, there is always a big get-together after the match. We eat together and share stories and experiences. It’s a lot of fun.”
In the desert, Arizona and Arizona State’s rivalry has been built on geography and an athletic feud dating back to the late 1800s when the two institutions’ football teams began playing each other. The long-standing Pac-10, and now Pac-12, rivalry has translated to the rugby pitch.
“It’s a great rivalry,” exclaimed Arizona Head Coach Sean Duffy. “Arizona State has a great program in both sevens and 15s. It’s really exciting to have a team this good right in our backyard.”
Duffy and his staff have decided to put extra emphasis on building a sevens unit this fall, with a number of players training strictly for sevens while they prepare for three fall tournaments. So, Arizona will be without a number of key players during Saturday’s match against Arizona State – players who will be available when the two teams play again in February.
Even though Saturday’s match is designated as a friendly, Duffy is convinced this weekend’s encounter will not be very polite.
“A lot of guys on our side have friends on the other team, but I don’t think they’ll be friends for 80 minutes on Saturday,” said Duffy.
Last season, the Wildcats defeated the Sun Devils, 51-38, in an emotional afternoon which coincided with the grand opening of Sitton Field, the on-campus rugby facility named after legendary Arizona Head Coach Dave Sitton.
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