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Rugby Today reporter and Beltway Elite prop Alexander Diegel here. Some of you may have read my writing before, and some may know I’ve played rugby in the Mid-Atlantic for the last six years or so with the Maryland/Potomac Exiles, Capital Selects, and now, Beltway.
Beltway Elite won the Mid-Atlantic Conference and qualified for Nationals as the ninth seed in its inaugural season, a story in and of itself. With my writing position at Rugby Today, the editors asked me if I was interested in doing something of a behind-the-scenes blog, Diegel’s Diary, if you will. I eagerly said yes. Here’s my experience as both a player and a reporter at the 2017 USA Club Rugby 7s National Championships:
Well, let’s start with the positives. The event is awesome. The stadium, the National Sports Center, in Blaine, Minn. may be the best I’ve ever played in. The pitches were immaculate and the facilities top-notch. There was a live stream for the majority of the tournament so my friends and family could tune in to watch the action live for the first time in my career.
I’ve been to Nationals before for 7s, most recently in the summer of 2014 with the Maryland Exiles. However, the game has grown so much in those three years that it’s only fitting an event like Nationals would grow with it. Unfortunately for me on the playing side, so has the talent.
In 2014, there was representation from the National side. Luke Hume was there. If memory serve me right, so was Lou Stanfill, suiting up with the Seattle Saracens. Perry Baker and Nate Augspurger were on the up and up. If they weren’t capped already, they were well on their way. But, now perhaps there is recency bias, this year’s event seemed like it was on a different level.
It was almost the norm to have at least one capped player on a team, not a rarity. Consider at one point I was watching the Connecticut Bulldogs and realized the passing line was All American-Eagle-Eagle in the forms of Jihad Khabir, Lorenzo Thomas and Tim Stanfill. The team also featured professional rugby player Cecil Garber, as well as Fijian national Filimoni Botitu. And they didn’t even win their conference. That honor went to Old Blue, the team featuring both Augspurger and Hume that advanced to the quarterfinals out of Pool B.
We had the misfortune of running into Connecticut in our first match, which was also our first time playing out of the Mid-Atlantic. After a competitive first half, things did not go well. The match quickly unraveled in the second, culminating in a 32-5 loss. I came in with about four minutes to go. I caught the kickoff, set the ruck, and promptly had my shorts completely shredded.
I played for a minute or so in basically a hula skirt around some spandex before changing into a spare, right in front of the live stream. If I could not give the fans watching at home a show with my play, I was happy to give them a different kind of show.
After that match, we played against Rugby Utah, the defending National Champions (Yeah, tough pool). We actually played them very well in the first half and went into the break tied up at five apiece. But the injury bug reared its ugly head and we made some uncharacteristic mistakes in the second half. Not to take anything away from Rugby Utah, who are obviously a fantastic squad, but I would love to replay that match with all hands on deck, just to see what would have happened after battling the defending champs to a draw for seven minutes. I know we are better than how we played today and we showed our peak for one half of rugby, really our only half playing near our best on Day One…
Which brings us to our third game against defending 15s National Champions, the Austin Huns. We took our first lead, but then things once again crumbled. I’ll be honest this was the only game that ticked me off and that’s because I felt we didn’t play with heart for a long portion of the game. I won’t sugar coat it here; I was pissed. We lost our third match to finish 0-3 on the day.
But hey, who’s there to pick you up when you’re down? Your teammates. We did a team dinner as planned and left the day’s woes behind us. I spent a long portion of the night swapping stories with and listening to many more from our own capped Eagle PJ Komongnan. The Mid-Atlantic legends of yesteryear probably felt their ears burning all the way from Minnesota.
All in all, would I have preferred to have won a game or two on Saturday? You bet your ass. But hey, it was still a great Day One of a rugby-filled weekend that I’ll never forget. Bring on Day Two.
Alexander is a beat reporter for Rugby Today, published author, freelance sports writer and club rugby player for the Potomac Exiles and the Beltway Elite 7s. For more rugby action and his sports takes, follow him on Twitter @alexanderdiegel.