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AOW's Jarrod Byrne attacking the Gorge defense.

There will be a new National Champion this year as the Atlanta Old White upset Rocky Gorge and Wisconsin prevailed over New York (NYRC) in the East Quarterfinals of the 2015 USA Club National Playoffs in Charlotte, N.C. After jumping out to an early 14-0 lead, the Atlanta Old White had to claw back to beat Rock Gorge in the final minutes to win, 35-29. Wisconsin was in control for most of the match and held off a second half push by NYRC to win 19-10.

Atlanta Old White vs Rocky Gorge

On a hot day at the Rugby Athletic Center in Charlotte, N.C, the Atlanta Old White (AOW) capitalized on the mistakes of Rocky Gorge to advance to the Final Four round of the National Playoffs. With Gorge up late by one point, AOW’s last try of the game with four minutes remaining featured a six-phase, 60 meter sequence that went back and forth through ten player’s hands. AOW made the most of their opportunities all game and performed well in space. The victory sets up a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal against Wisconsin.

“We did not play well today,” AOW head coach Francesco Balsas said. “Obviously, Rocky Gorge has a very strong pack of forwards and today, they showed it. Today, their pack of forwards was superior to ours. On the other hand, I think my backline was superior to Rocky Gorge’s backline. They got a lot of experience in these sorts of games and we didn’t, but we learned from our mistakes last season. We didn’t get possession of the ball, which hurt us in the end of the first half and the beginning of the second half. The only thing was we executed the balls that we had. The chances that they gave us, we created and executed those chances.”

AOW burst out to a 14-0 lead with two tries in the first six minutes of the match. In the second minute, flyhalf David Winiarczyk took an intercept for a try and after a lineout four minutes later, scrumhalf Antoine Blanchet scored after a series of forward pick and goes. Blanchet slotted both kicks to give AOW a surprising lead.

At the 22nd minute, Rocky Gorge finally awoke from it’s slumber and eightman Josh Brown scored two tries from forwards ball six minutes apart. Flyhalf Nick Kuhl connected on his kicks to tie the game at 14-14. Unfortunately, Gorge’s scrumhalf, Nick Sylor, sprained his ankle and head coach Will Brewington had to shuffle his lineup early.

AOW finished the half with a ball that started around midfield where outside center Jarrod Byrne shot around the corner and fullback Jamie Gasparella capped the play with a try. With the score, AOW held a 21-14 lead at halftime.

Determined to make their mark in the second half, Rocky Gorge’s Derek Chell chased down a kick ahead by Kuhl and inside center Josh Cherriman powered over for the try in support. Eleven minutes later, hooker Matt Carroll scored off a series of phase ball from the forwards to give Gorge their first 24-21 lead.

At the 57th minute, AOW was assessed a yellow card for not wrapping during a tackle and Gorge pounced the opportunity. Following a held ball in the tryzone, another phase ball attack resulted in a Gorge try by Will Miller. With the conversion, Gorge stretched their advantage to 29-21.

With 20 minutes left, AOW continued to be opportunistic and make the best of the their counterattacks. Starting at the 65th minute, AOW’s Ross Harkness poached the ball and the backs found an overload on the wing for a Gasparella try. The Blanchet conversion cut the lead to one point at 29-28. Back at full strength, both teams battled for field position as substitutes came on for tired players.

With four minutes remaining and Gorge clinging to a slim lead, AOW marched 60 meters down field going through hands ending with Winiarczyk’s second try. Blanchet nailed the kick for the 35-29 score. Gorge attempted to score in the final minutes, but AOW’s defense clamped down and kicked the ball out of bounds after a penalty to end the game.

“It was tough,” Brewington stated. “We dug ourselves a hole, we were able to climb out of it, but we weren’t able to finish... They finished their opportunities. Two long tries. That last try was pretty impressive with 15-man, back and forth movement. The one before that was another long try with a missed tackle at the 50 and they went through. I give credit to them. Our No. 9 going down hurt, giving an interception for a try hurt. I credit the opposition and wished them luck.”

With a rematch against Wisconsin on the horizon, Balsas said, “I expect it to be a tough game. Wisconsin has a little bit more open than Rocky Gorge does I think. I don’t like to think about them, I want to think about what we did wrong today and what we can correct in order to take Wisconsin tomorrow.”

Wisconsin vs New York Rugby Club

Wisconsin will return to the Final Four for the first time since they won their National Championship in 2013. At the Skillbeck Athletic Grounds, Wisconsin built a 19-3 lead early in the second half and used their superb defense to limit NYRC’s offense and hold on for the 19-10 victory.

“We were able to pressure and gain ground with a larger percentage of the phases,” stated Wisconsin head coach Adam Thimmig. “More of our phases were effective on attack. They played good defense and we played great defense at times.”

“The player of the game was our fullback [Chris Bauch]. Four times he cut off a wing, either knocking him into touch, made a tackle when he was isolated, or stopped a guy right through the middle of the field with a last ditch tackle. It definitely wasn’t that New York break the gain line, they had probably seven or eight line break, it was just that we, on all but one of them, we got them with the scramble defense. We were effective on attack, but our defense was multiple levels better on the day.”

Wisconsin’s wing Andrew Norton started the scoring with a counterattack on a turnover to race 60 meters for the try. NYRC responded with a penalty kick by wing Hugues Vincent, but their opponent led 5-3. At the 20th minute after successive penalties, Wisconsin formed a driving maul and hooker Tony Esealuka touched the ball down for the try. Miles Jobke made the conversion and the score stayed at 12-3 at the half.

Ten minutes into the second half, Wisconsin extended their lead to 19-3. Eightman Josh Riesser dove for the score after multiple phases that started with a lineout from 45 meters out. NYRC ramped up their offense in the second half and pressured inside Wisconsin’s zone for most of the period. The offense finally scored when Chris Henderson sprinted through the centers as a result of a notable lineout move from the 22 at the 57th minute. Lucas Roberts punched the conversion through, but Wisconsin maintained a 19-10 advantage.

For the rest of the game, NYRC continued to beat against the their opposition’s defensive front, but were unable to put any points on the board. In the end, Wisconsin’s defense held and was the key to their win and trip back to the Final Four.

Thimmig is looking forward to tomorrow’s match against the Atlanta Old White with a trip to Glendale on the table. “I assume that any team that beat Gorge with the style of play they’ve had over the last couple of years has pretty solid set pieces and runs hard and is able to break the gain line regularly. Any team that can counterattack well has an attacking mindset. We’re expecting that we are going to have to play defense and defense is what has kept us in multiple recent games.