You are here
This weekend in Pittsburgh, Pa., the world of club rugby descends on Founders Field where four teams will clash for the honor to play in the Division I USA Club Championships in Glendale, Colo. on June 3rd. At 5pm, the Midwest Champion, the Chicago Lions, are matched up against the Mid-Atlantic's Rocky Gorge and the last two DI National Champions, NYAC and Mystic River, face off for semifinal glory.
Chicago Lions vs Rocky Gorge
For the quarterfinal between Chicago and Gorge, it will be the first meeting between the clubs. With rain expected in Pittsburgh, the match could come between two USA Eagle boots at #10, Ben Cima for Gorge and JP Eloff for the Lions. Both players have incredible 50+ meter range for penalty kicks and can flip field position at the drop of a hat.
“I think it will certainly be a game won at the set piece and by discipline,” said Chicago coach Dave Clancy. “With two Eagle-level placekickers on the field who will punish you for giving away penalties, it will come down to discipline and playing in the right side of the field.”
Chicago got to Nationals by defeating top-seeded Columbus in the Midwest final to complete a 12-4 season. It’s the Lions’ first appearance at Nationals since 2013 with its best ever run ending in the Quarterfinals in 2012, though the club has spent its fair share of time in Super League over the years.
This is Gorge’s second straight year in the DI Quarterfinals that followed five consecutive seasons of postseason play in Division II, including National Championships in 2012 and 2014. The only blemish on a perfect season in the Mid-Atlantic was a loss to Wilmington when the majority of the DI side was on the road against NYAC. Gorge rebounded with five straight victories to make it to the Nationals.
Gorge is led by Cima at #10 and a strong crew of back row forwards. "Everyone knows about Ben's leg, but what I like about Ben the most is his defense," Rocky Gorge coach Nick DiMichele said. "He is aggressive, makes tackles and has a knack for poaching."
DiMichele pointed to depth, possession, defense, and matching the Lions physically as keys to his team’s success on Saturday. “Our depth has gotten us through the season; we’re fortunate to have a large player pool,” said DiMichele. “Our back row has been huge [in defense] and our backs can score from anywhere so long as we can keep possession... We don't have a specific pattern or style of play, we like to adapt to what's in front of us."
Clancy’s squad has a dangerous attack led by Eloff, wing and top try-scorer Brian Rooney, fullback Robert Stortz, #13 Dan Coci, and flanker Thomas Kacor. The defense has some top-flight talent as well led by USA prop Angus MacLellan and emerging #7 Dave Whitney. However, it will be intelligence and execution that leads the way for the Lions.
“I think if we play smart and execute our basic skills we’ll [have] a chance of advancing to the semifinals on Sunday. Playoff rugby is a different environment and I feel our guys have reacted very positively thus far. I hope they’ll continue to remain calm, stick to the gameplan and just play heads up rugby,” explained Clancy.
Mystic River vs NYAC
The second regional match features the last two National Champions and familiar foes in the American Rugby Premiership/Atlantic North. In what is turning into an intense rivalry, NYAC swept the three-game season series against Mystic River, but are not taking the defending National Champs lightly.
“Mystic is the best team in the country and will be until somebody takes the National title off them. They are extremely well coached with threats all over the pitch,” said NYAC coach Mike Quinn.
Quinn’s squad is led by USA forwards Nate Brakeley (lock) and loosie Al McFarland. The duo’s leadership and experience at the highest levels will be pivotal in Saturday’s match.
Mystic’s #10 Robbie Malneek and Tasman Makos’ (New Zealand) most-capped player leads the way for Mystic River. “Rob is the leader on the field and does a great job of keeping players accountable in our attack and systems,” said Mystic River coach Josh Smith.
With few secrets left between these Atlantic North foes, Smith believes the match will come down to execution near the goal line. “I feel the players and coaches know each pretty well at this point. We need to do a better job of executing inside the 22 meter line; [NYAC] has been much better in that area this year. NYAC is always fundamentally sound, it is always a challenge to make them uncomfortable in their systems. Based on first three matches, I am guessing it should be a close match.”
Quinn echoed Smith’s sentiments that this game will come down to who makes the fewest mistakes. “When playing Mystic, it comes down to execution. Whoever executes better will win this match. [We’ll] need to work hard on both sides of the ball and execute on our opportunities.”
Alexander is a beat reporter for Rugby Today, published author, freelance sports writer and club rugby player for the Potomac Exiles. For more rugby action and his sports takes, follow him on Twitter @alexanderdiegel.