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Two-thirds of the way through the West qualification season, WE Rugby seems primed for a second Nationals berth in just three years of existence.
In 2011, The Woodlands Exiles were carried largely by the play of Canadian National Team members Phil Mack and John Moonlight. Former Eagle Mark Aylor, NA4 veteran Nathan Rogers and former NFL running back Yamar Washington helped the Exiles to Nationals, too.
In 2012, the Exiles changed course and went with a group of talented young players. Exiles coach and founder David Pope wanted more players at each training, as opposed to them just flying in for the tournaments, and he helped several All Americans, like Penn State’s Chris Saint, find a lucrative job or internship in the Houston area. The young Exiles struggled with continuity and physicality, finishing fourth in the West and missing out on Nationals.
This season, Pope has brought back many of last year’s All Americans and added several more. The retention of a core of players has helped tremendously with continuity, as has the recruitment of so many Arkansas State players. In total, eight members of the National Champion Red Wolves 7s team are registered with WE.
“I think that’s the main thing is us playing together two years in a row,” said Mizell. “And it just helped that we had so many Arkansas State guys that we could just come in and fill them in on the system and get them together faster more than us having to teach them how to do everything slowly. We could just translate to them, basically, what we’re doing.”
Guillen is the only original Exile left on the roster, and he was the only one to stick around from year one to year two.
“It helps not only in terms of knowing how each other plays, but our friendships are growing, and it makes you dig down deep for a championship and to win for the boys,” the Aggie added.
Also helping the Exiles this summer is the addition of two players, in particular – Alfred Qaranivalu and Hunter Leland.
Qaranivalu, a Life Running Eagle and longtime Maryland Exiles 7s player, provides power and pace. He’s given WE a level of physicality it didn’t possess last season. Potgieter is huge in that department as well.
Leland brings a winning pedigree, having helped the Denver Barbarians to a fourth-place finish in the country last season, and, even at 25, some maturity and leadership. In the final of Saturday’s West qualifier in Kansas City, Mo., Leland faced his old team in Denver, scoring two tries and catching a black eye en route to a 26-10 win.
“It was a fun game. I wanted to make sure I got after them, obviously being there last year,” said Leland, “A lot of the guys had never won a [qualifier] tournament before, so it was nice to get one with these guys.”
With one tournament left, Denver July 20, WE Rugby is tied for first place with the Kansas City Blues. A first or second place performance would clinch a Nationals berth, and finishing third or fourth might well be good enough, too.