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It’s prediction time, and I can’t step out on this one, I have to pick Seattle Saracens to take home its third title in four years. They have literally everything you hope for – steppers, speed, size, experience and top-notch coaching.
I do think there are a few teams capable of knocking them off, if the stars align. One is Old Blue. If anyone can come close to matching Seattle with exciting talent, it’s the Northeast champs. That said, their tournament results this summer have been severely lacking in the consistency department.
The other team is Denver. The Barbarians play maybe the most mistake-free rugby in the country, which any team that’s going to beat Seattle is going to have to do. And where they lacked players who could strike out on their own and make a play last year, when they finished second, they have added some this year. Hunter Leland is a shifty ball carrier and a rock-solid player. Kevon Williams has some shake-and-bake in him, as does Michael Al-Jiboori, who will likely be an impact sub.
The team most likely to do the job, though, is Belmont Shore. Justin Boyd, Ed Pitts, Mike Te’o, Eric Duechle and Jack Tracy have all been big-time contributors on Belmont title teams in recent years. They have that mixture of talent and been-there-done-that swagger that could prove difficult for Seattle.
Who gets through: Seattle Saracens & Schuylkill River
Why: Seattle Saracens is the odds-on favorite to win the whole thing. They are wickedly stacked and deep. It would probably take an upset of monumental proportions to keep them out of the top eight.
I’m picking Schuylkill River because they have the most recent Nationals experience and have shown the ability to get to the Cup Quarterfinals. They’re also extremely well coached, not that New Orleans and Kansas City aren’t. But Chris Ryan is among the best in the country, and when the teams are as tight as I think Kansas City, New Orleans and Schuylkill are, experience and coaching are pretty good overriding factors.
The Blues are not the same team that went 0-6 at Nationals a couple of years ago. They’re more athletic, deeper and have more legitimate scoring threats. New Orleans is a lot like Kansas City, in that they’ve been playing really good team 7s for a few years now, and they’re nearing the boiling point of becoming great. So I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see either advance. Outside of Seattle getting through, nothing is guaranteed.
Who gets through: Belmont Shore & Old Blue
Why: First, let me say it was hard not to say 1823 was getting through. Hard to bet against a team with Taylor Howden and Perry Baker. Howden has been to Nationals with four teams now, and won it all before. He’s as good a playmaker without an international cap as there is in the domestic scene. Baker is, well if you don’t know who Baker is by now, why are you reading?
But I think Old Blue is deeper with richer talent and has more Nationals experience, and I’m not betting against Belmont Shore, which hasn’t missed the Cup Quarterfinals since 2008. Old Blue has some pretty nice steppers in Luke Hume and Morgan Findlay.
Who gets through: Chicago Lions & East Palo Alto
Why: The Chicago Lions have made eight-straight Cup Quarterfinal appearances. That’s enough to write them in with permanent marker. The Titans finished 14th last year, and every Hawaii team remains a question mark, so I won’t bloviate about them since I haven’t seen them play in 365 days, but only once has a Hawaiian team reached the top eight.
I give East Palo Alto the nod because they have actually won a qualifier tournament this summer, and they finished second in a legitimate qualifier series. They also have Mile Pulu, and he’s the most decorated player in this pool.
Who gets through: Denver Barbarians & New York AC
Why: Frankly, I think they played in two of the toughest qualification series’ in the country. The Barbarians had to beat out two other very worthy teams to get to Nationals in the Kansas City Blues and Glendale, and New York got out of what I think was the best circuit this summer – the Northeast. The AC has a lot of CRC flavor in its roster, and that will only help. It’s worth noting the Barbos finished second last year, suffered little turnover and added some nice pieces.
Santa Monica and Austin are both wildcards, in that they haven’t got a lot of Nationals experience. The way which Santa Monica was punished by Belmont in the final SoCal qualifier is alarming. And no team from Texas, outside of the now apparently extinct Woodlands Exiles, has done anything to speak of Nationals in some time.