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Pool A at the 2017 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Men's Club 7s National Championship in Minneapolis, Minn. is the freshman and sophomore pool, highlighted by the reigning 7s National Champions, Rugby Utah. None of the four teams had made Nationals before the 2016 season, when Utah took the nation by surprise and won the tournament. It headlines the group after capturing its second straight Frontier division crown. Competing with Utah will be Beltway Elite, the Mid-Atlantic champs in its inaugural season, and the Red River’s #2 in the Austin Huns.  The other freshman in the class is the Connecticut Bulldogs, Atlantic North runner-ups, appearing at Nationals for the first time.

Rugby Utah (Frontier #1, #1 Overall)

Rugby Utah returns a strong core from last year’s championship team with some new talent mixed in. But Utah is not going in overconfident or expecting to sleepwalk back to the finals.

“The Huns beat us convincingly in 15s this year, so we expect them to have the same personnel and be a serious contender to go all the way,” said Utah coach Ben Nichols. “Bulldogs have qualified out of one of the toughest regions and obviously have some serious firepower with some international players in their setup. Beltway Elite come in as a top seed from their region and will need to be respected.”

The team is paced by USA’s Don Pati and a potential future Eagle in the form of Havea Unufe, little brother of Maka. The roster is filled out with a mix of college All-Americans and former BYU and University of Utah standouts to complete a team that clearly has the talent to make another run. While the ability is there, Nichols points to two things that will determine if this year’s championship dreams are a reality.

“Showing some team character and making the decision to fight for each other to the end of each game,” said Nichols. “We have not played our best yet and know we are going to have to find some form when it counts.”

Rugby Utah Projected Roster

  • Don Pati
  • Jared Whippy
  • Joseph Nicholls
  • Zach Webber
  • Vernon Ale
  • Josh Anderson
  • Chad Gough
  • Gabe Ruflin
  • Josh Whippy
  • Lance Williams
  • Jackson Kaka
  • Havea Unufe

Beltway Elite (Mid-Atlantic #1, #9 Overall)

Beltway Elite has been one of the surprises of the summer and will look to keep turning heads at Nationals. The first-year team is comprised of a strong core of Baltimore-Chesapeake and Potomac Exiles’ veterans, as well as other local programs such as Washington RFC and American University. The players quickly gelled and took the Mid-Atlantic by storm with a first or second place finish in every qualifier. Now it will be playing outside of the Mid-Atlantic for the first time in its existence.

“It’s a tough pool, there’s no denying that. We have the defending champs in Rugby Utah, Connecticut is as dangerous as anyone, and the Huns are fresh off a 15s National Championship,” explained Beltway coach Jon Grasso. “But if we keep playing our game and take care of the ball, we can hang with anyone.

Chris Saint of Potomac and PRO Rugby’s now-defunct Sacramento Express leads the team leads the team as captain. BC captain Tyler Barberi has provided steady leadership and Dave Hightower, also of Baltimore, has been an explosive addition.

“At times, we’ve gotten ourselves in trouble by playing out of our system when we’ve felt pressure. If we refrain from doing that, I like our chances,” said Grasso. “A team game has gotten us here, and it’s a team game that will get us through our pool.”

Beltway Elite Projected Roster

  • David Hightower
  • Tyler Barberi
  • Alex Diegel
  • Joe Hughes
  • John Sharkey
  • Greg Salvucci
  • Chris Saint
  • Will Taylor
  • PJ Komongnan
  • John Murray
  • Joanel Joseph
  • Alex Walsh
  • Junior Sucu

Connecticut Bulldogs (Atlantic North #2, #8 Overall)

The Connecticut Bulldogs are the wild card of this pool and indeed may be the wild card of this entire tournament. On paper, it’s as dangerous as any team. However, that talent has not always come together in the past as it’s fallen just short of Nationals qualification in recent years. Stephen Lewis came in from Old Blue this season and added the structure and stability the team needed.

“The Bulldogs have always had plenty of talent, but have now added discipline and fortitude, performing when the heat is on,” said Lewis. “[We] took awhile to gel, but finished strong with first and second place finishes [in the final two qualifiers].”

Capped Eagles Tim Stanfill and Lorenzo Thomas, Major League Rugby’s Cecil Garber and Fijian national Filimoni Botitu lead the star-studded roster. But Connecticut will need to be at its most cohesive to come out of its pool. “Utah are defending champions, so a tough ask,” said Lewis. “The Austin Huns just won a 15s national championship, and the Beltway Elite are a new outfit. So we have our hands full getting out of the group.”

Connecticut Bulldogs Projected Roster

  • Tim Stanfill
  • OZ Jones
  • Lorenzo Thomas
  • Nik Griswold
  • Eric Lalley
  • Cecil Garber
  • Michael Nelson
  • Moo Smith
  • Adrian Ray
  • Jihad Khabir
  • Filimoni Botitu

Austin Huns (Red River #2, #16 Overall)

The Austin Huns enter the pool as a bit of an unknown. It is fresh off of the 15s National Championship and the sevens team qualified for Nationals last year, but came in dead last. So, is Austin a very strong club better suited for the 15s game? Or a sleeping 7s giant ready to prove it’s a true contender on the level of its 15s counterparts? This coming weekend will tell the tale.

The 15s success left the 7s team with only a week to prepare for the first qualifier and actually hindered the team early. But the flip side is it had to, and did, finish strong in order to qualify for Nationals in the first place. The team has momentum and experience playing under “must win” pressure going for it.

“The first two tournaments were very difficult. The muscle memory of what we had done during the 15s season really hurt us,” said Huns coach Danie De Villiers. “By the third tournament, we could see that things were starting to turn around and we started to play decent 7s rugby. From there on, it has been a steady improvement.”

The Huns deploy a lot of its 15s regulars, so team chemistry is an edge it will lean on for a successful run. With Austin becoming one of the new Major League Rugby teams in 2018, many of the players already are, or are soon going to become, professionals. The Huns have plenty in the athleticism department to go with its cohesion.

“It really is all about Day One,” said De Villiers when asked what his team would have to do to contend for the 7s crown. “We have to put ourselves in a position where we can have a shot at the title. Our mental approach to a possible quarterfinal and semifinal would be different from other teams, because I don't think anyone, outside of us, expects us to be there. We are flying way under the radar.”

Austin Huns Projected Roster

  • Sani Taylor
  • Matt Radzavich
  • Deon Minnaar
  • Curtis Chaffin
  • Lomani Tongotongo
  • Zinzan Elan-Puttick
  • Peni Tagive
  • David Lemasters
  • Joedee Reyes
  • Kyle Breytenbach
  • Justin Brown
  • Vetekina Malafu
  • Timothee Guillimin

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.