Clemson and South Carolina renew their intrastate rivalry for the first time in three years Saturday in the Knoxville, Tenn. region of the Sweet 16. The Gamecocks beat the Tigers twice in the fall of 2011, but they’ve not met since.
The coaches of both programs are excited about the first-round pairing.
“It kind of started to come into the picture the last couple weeks of the season,” said Clemson coach Justin Hickey of the match-up.
“We kind of figured it might shake out that way, and with Florida and Florida State matching up last year, being an in-state rival in the same region, we thought it might happen. It’s exciting… It just sweetens it, being able to potentially get past our rival to move on.”
USC coach Mark Morris has been with the Gamecocks since 2007 (coincidentally the last year Clemson made the postseason) and he’s never lost to the Tigers. He’s relying on quite a few underclassmen play makers this season, including a large number of out-of-state students, so this will be their first taste of the rivalry.
“They hear about the Clemson rivalry, but they haven’t experienced it yet on the rugby field,” said Morris. “It’s kind of hard to get them to understand what the rivalry means in the state of South Carolina. Take the biggest rivalry in the world and multiple it by 10.”
Though the players on these teams aren’t overwhelmingly familiar with each other, the coaches have some idea what to expect Saturday.
“I know Justin will have them conditioned and ready to play,” said Morris. “It should be two even teams going at it.”
“They’re a good attacking team. They love to move the ball wide a lot,” said Hickey of USC, who he saw play Tennessee in the SCRC title game.
“I think Tennessee fell behind in that game just because they were getting beat around the corners, and once Tennessee slowed the pace down and controlled possession a little bit and moved the point of attack in tighter to the rucks, they were able to come back and pull it out. We’ll take a few pages from what Tennessee was able to do, but I think you have to slow them down.”
Added incentive for Clemson is the possibility of being the first-ever ACRL team to win a DI-AA playoff game.
“It’s not something that’s haunting us by any means, but we take pride in our league and we feel that we do have a responsibility to represent the ACRL well, and we hope to kind of change history and turn the luck for the league a little bit,” said Hickey.
“I think that as the league has evolved, teams have gotten a lot stronger top to bottom, and hopefully we can show that in the results.”
And added incentive for USC is the possibility of getting another crack at Tennessee, who has beaten the Gamecocks twice in recent weeks.
"We shot ourselves in our foot, put 28 points on them and let them come back on us, so that kind of stuck in our craw," said Morris.
"The kids know that they can beat Tennessee. It’s just we haven’t put a whole game together. In our minds we know that any given day we can play with them and eliminate the mistakes. We look forward to playing Clemson, hopefully move past them and get another shot at Tennessee or UCF."