PARIS, FRANCE - For the first time since 2019, the Saint Ignatius Rugby returned to international travel, visiting Paris, Tours, Bayeux and Roeun in France. The Wildcats would play in three matches while in France, taking on Sporting Club Universitaire de France, Tours Rugby Club and Rouen Normandie Rugby. The Rugby Cats would go an impressive 2-1 on the international trip while taking in France's beautiful sights.
Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00 has made it a staple for the rugby program for the student-athletes to experience international travel and understand the game of rugby outside of the United States. Due to the pandemic, the Cats had not traveled internationally since 2019, when Saint Ignatius went to Ireland for three matches. In 2022, Saint Ignatius returned to its international roots.
The Cats took the jump over the pond to France on March 23 and landed in Paris on March 24. On the first day in Paris, Saint Ignatius students and parents took in the gorgeous scenery on the Seine River, where they could see some of the famed landmarks such as Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tour, Sainte Chapelle and much more. The Saint Ignatius community enjoyed the Parisian weather, with highs being in the 70s with clear skies.
Students and families nestled into their Hostel and the Cats became familiar with Paris. Saint Ignatius would tour the Louvre, home to some of the most famous artworks such as the Mona Lisa, Salvator Mundi, Venus de Milo, etc. The tour would finish outside at the Arc Du Carrousel and the Cats headed to practice to prepare for their match-up against Sporting Club Universitaire de France (SCUF).
The Wildcats were divided into two teams, the normal Varsity A squad and U16. The U16 group was composed of freshmen, sophomores and juniors who were new to the sport. Training consisted of the Cats preparing to play with international rules and a different size ball compared to the high school ball in the United States. For coach Arbeznik, this isn't the first time Saint Ignatius has traveled to France; in fact, the Wildcats were in France in 2017.
"This is one of the great things about Rugby; being an international sport you can go pretty much anywhere and find a rugby team to play," says Arbeznik. "We were super excited to bring our kids over here, experience the culture, and find opponents from other countries."
Rugby is one of the popular sports in France as from a young age, student-athletes began playing and understanding the sport, which put Saint Ignatius at a disadvantage with most of their student-athletes not starting to play until entering high school. "Traditionally, European kids have grown up playing the sport," Arbeznik explains. "Our kids were going to be a little behind, but it's good to have our kids exposed to this kind of Rugby."
On Saturday, March 26, the Wildcats would play their first opponent, a familiar one in Paris, SCUF. The Cats matched up against them in their previous visit to France in 2017, where the Wildcats won 29-10. There would be two games, one for the U16 teams and the Varsity A squad. The U16 team showed tremendous grit in their game as after the first 35 minutes; they trailed 17-5. They would storm back to tie the match at 17 in the second half, ultimately losing in the final seconds 24-17.
Next up was the Varsity A team filled with veteran leadership. The Cats would trail 7-0 in the match's opening minutes but would come right back as junior Ed Soeder would force his way in for the first try in France for the Rugby Cats. With a Bobby Voth conversion, the game was equalized at seven.
Soeder would continue to use his size advantage over SCUF when the Cats approached the try zone as he worked his way in for his second try of the match, putting the Cats up 12-5 in the first half. The Cats would take the lead into the half and continue their dominance on the pitch for the next 35 minutes.
Senior Jack Howarth scored a try in the early stages of the second half, giving the Wildcats a 17-5 lead and with the conversion from Voth, the Cats lead comfortably with a 19-5 lead. The strong defense from the Wildcats would continue and Senior Tribe leader Jack Dulik would put the nail in the coffin with a late try to lock a 24-7 victory in the opening match in France.
"It was a tough game, especially taking on an opponent from overseas," says Dulik. "They play a much different game and it's a lot quicker, but we brought power which helped us. With a significant amount of football guys in Joey Georges, Pat Lavelle and Marty Lenehan, we have a good amount of strength."
The Wildcats would cap off the day at Stade Jean-Bouin in Paris for a pro rugby match between Stade Francais and Bordeaux Begles. Bordeaux would come away with a 31-18 victory over Stade Francais.
On their final day in Paris, the Saint Ignatius community would meet at the Eiffel Tower, with some choosing to take the climb to take in the beautiful view of the city. To end their stay in Paris, the Cats enjoyed an amazing dinner at Montmarte, a restaurant that overlooks downtown Paris.
The Wildcats would pack up and begin their travel to the next destination in Tours, France. Along the way, they visited Chartres Cathedral and Chateau de Chambord. As the Cats arrived in Tours, it was time for one of the unique experiences in France. Just outside of Tours is a small town called Chinon. The Saint Ignatius community would enjoy a group dinner in Les Caves Painctes; this was located in a cave in Chinon. After a fantastic feast, the Wildcats settled into their hostels for the night as they would have their second trip match the next day.
Before the match, the Cats were back in Chinon for their choice of activities; visiting a truffle farm, Foreresse Royale de Chinon, or a boat ride on the Vienne River. The U16 group took the pitch at 6 p.m. CET, as both Saint Ignatius and Tours Rugby Club came together to sing The Star-Spangled Banner and French National Anthem. U16 would fall to Tours, 24-5, but again showed promise as the future of Wildcat Rugby. As the game ended, the U16 group became a student section, creating a unique atmosphere in Tours.
Tours Rugby Club would take an early 5-0 lead over the Cats at the 7:30 mark of the first half. The Cats and Tours demonstrated incredible defensive play throughout the match, but Saint Ignatius would breakthrough at the 17:10 mark as senior Sam Infante got the ball across for a try and equalized the game at five.
Over the next 10 minutes, the momentum began to swing in the Wildcats' favor. A penalty by Tours set up a kick by Voth from about 30 meters out. Voth snuck the ball through to give the Cats an 8-5 advantage and that would be the first half score after 35 minutes.
In the opening minutes of the second half, senior Nate Polinko found is way out of the scrum and into the try zone to give the Cats a 13-5 lead at the 39th-minute mark. "We knew that we were more physical than them; we wanted to establish ourselves in France," says Polinko. "We got the ball in and when we got rolling, there was no one stopping our guys up front."
With another strong push by the maul, Patrick Lavelle would get his first try in 2022 at the 46th-minute mark. The conversion was no good, but the Cats would take an 18-5 lead with 25 minutes remaining in the contest. At the 55th-minute, Tours would get a try and a successful conversion to put the score at 18-12 and take momentum in the late stages of the second half.
In the final minutes, the Wildcats showed what kind of team they would be in 2022, a group of grit. As time wound down, Tours entered inside the 10-meter line with a chance to steal the game. The clock would head into extra time as the Cats' defensive stand-by would not give way. Joey Georges and Garrett Butchko would be sent off with yellow cards in the final minutes, putting the Cats down two men.
"We had penalty after penalty, making mistakes near the end," says Polinko. "It was neck and neck near the end, but our defense puts on so much pressure and we were able to force a mistake."
As time expired, Tours would fumble on a pass play near the try line and Voth would come away with the ball. As Voth put the ball in the stands via a kick, the Wildcats came away with a thrilling 18-12 victory over one of the top rugby clubs in France.
The Wildcats would leave Tours with a 2-0 record in France, heading to their next destination in Bayeux, a city located in Lower Normandy. A pitstop was made to visit Falaise to see the Castle of William the Conqueror before departing to the Hostels in Bayeux.
On Thursday, March 31, the Saint Ignatius community may have experienced one of the everlasting memories of the France trip, touring the beaches of Normandy. It was a cold and blustery day as the Cats arrived at the English Channel, touring Longues-Sur-Mer, the home to German Gun Batteries during World War II. Next was visiting the Normandy American Cemetery, commemorating those Americans who lost their lives in France during the second Great War. Finally, walking on Omaha Beach, where many students took sand from the beach to return home.
Friday, April 1, would be the final day in France, which would mark the last match for Varsity A as they would take on Rouen Normandie Rugby Club. The Wildcats would have rolling substitutions to allow all to play in the final international game. Rouen was the best in France, with many future pro rugby players on the roster. Rouen would lead 49-0 at the half, ultimately winning 61-0 in the match.
The Rugby Cats would cap the trip with a 2-1 record on their tour of France. They are taking incredible experience back to Ohio as they get ready to gear themselves for the National Tournament in May and, hopefully, another State Championship appearance in Ohio. More importantly, experiencing a unique experience in France.
After their hiatus from international travel, the Rugby Cats are back to being a globetrotting program. A huge thank you goes to Head Rugby Coach Dan Arbeznik '00 and his wife Ellen for their hard work in making the trip possible. Along with Up & Under in France to create a unique experience for the Saint Ignatius community.
As the Rugby Cats return to playing on American soil, their mindset now shifts to the ultimate goal, winning a National Championship. The Cats will compete at Nationals in Eikhart, IN beginning on May 19.