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Army begins pursuit of rugby crown

The All-Army rugby team began preparations this week for the 2010 Armed Forces championship — with an eye on figuring out how to unseat six-time defending champion Air Force.

The Soldiers face the Airmen at 10 a.m. Wednesday in the tournament opener at Stewart-Watson Field. It’s a rematch of last year’s title game, which Air Force won 34-0.

Army opened its trial camp Monday with 28 players and a new head coach, Clint Olearnick, an instructor with Fort Benning’s Maneuver Captains Career Course. He replaces Mike Stephenson, who retired after leading the club for a decade.

“We look great so far,” Olearnick said Wednesday. “I’m really happy with them. We’ve come a long way in just a short time. I have high hopes going into the tournament.”

The Soldiers went 3-2 in the 2009 Armed Forces Rugby Championship. They’re conducting three-a-day workouts, including a morning conditioning session and team practices in the afternoon, with fundamental drills in between.

Among Army’s top returnees are Nate Conkey, a center and assistant coach from West Point; inside center Gerald Saafi of the 75th Ranger Regiment; and Augie Dominguez, a fly half and center from Fort Bragg, N.C. Players from Germany and Hawaii are in camp, while a handful of others from Fort Benning also are out to make the team.

Olearnick played 13 years with the All-Army squad as a flanker and 8-man and would’ve suited up again this fall if not for a dislocated elbow. He said a couple of players have gone down with injuries, but the roster will be trimmed to 25 by Sunday, the tournament max.

Air Force, meanwhile, has been particularly dominant in capturing the last two gold medals, outscoring the other service branches 226-3 last year and 248-19 in 2008.

“As long as I’ve been playing, we’ve never beat them,” Olearnick said. “They come with about the same crew every year. They’re pretty good players, and they’re a very clean team on the pitch.”

Several Army players said they believe the intense training camp workouts will help them close the gap.

“Our guys are definitely in pretty phenomenal shape,” said center Colin O’Donnell of the Ranger Training Brigade. “If nothing else, we’ll outrun ‘em.”Dave Clarke, a back row forward who just arrived at Fort Benning in September, is making his first bid for a roster spot. Born to American parents, he grew up in England and began playing rugby at age 9.

“This is some of the best coaching, skills and strategy I’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said. “And coach has been smoking the bejesus out of us in practice — but I think it’s gonna pay off in the end.”