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The West won three of the divisions of USA Club Rugby last season and a strong crop of squads battled in Fort Worth, Texas this past weekend to contend for this year’s crown. When the dust finally settled, Belmont Shore, the Life West Gladiatrix, the Denver Barbarians, the St. Louis Sabres, and Austin Blacks will join the five teams from the East in two weeks for the Club National Championships at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo.
Men’s Division I
Fresh off winning the reformed Pacific Rugby Premiership, Belmont Shore came from behind in the last minute to beat the Austin Blacks, 29-27, for the Western DI Championship. Challenged by a relentless wind all match, the teams battled for the entire 80 minutes as the lead went back and forth five times. The Blacks were up by five points with less than 15 minutes left and Belmont scored the game-tying try with no time left. It all came down to the boot of Daniel Thomas and the scrumhalf’s aim was on target for the victory.
“It was a tough one,” Belmont head coach Ray Egan said. “To be honest, I didn’t think we played well. A lot that was on us but the conditions were really tough... Austin came back on us and they capitalized on the wind [in the second half]. Toward the last ten minutes when we were under the pump and behind, we just had field position the whole time. We were camped in their 22 until eventually, we scored. The difference was that last 15 minute period and the field position.”
Austin took the lead early with an Adam Armstrong penalty and score stayed that way until the end of the half. In the last five minutes, Belmont struck twice through tries from Pila Iongi and Jacob Grubbs to go into the break up 12-3. Thomas added the lead with a PK early in the second but Austin responded swiftly with 17 straight points via a pair of Jock Merriman tries and three kicks by Armstrong (two conversions and a penalty) to retake the lead.
After Belmont’s Maze Masoe and Austin’s Spencer Jones traded tries in the 63rd and 67th minutes, respectively, the game came down to the final minutes of play. Belmont was the aggressor and stayed in the Blacks’ half despite multiple penalties and turnovers.
Austin’s clearance kicks got them out of immediate danger but Belmont continued to find itself in good field position. In the last sequence with little time left, the Blacks attempted to find touch with a clearance kick but Belmont’s Pita Semeane ran it up the gut to within the five but turned it over to Austin who desperately kicked it out. Belmont’s lineout was sent wide and the Blacks were flagged for not rolling away.
Belmont quick tapped and drove to the line. Masoe picked and jammed for the score resulting in the referee’s initial call of a held ball. After consulting with the assistant, the play was ruled a try and the Belmont celebrated to tie the game. Thomas lined up the kick from the sideline and nailed the conversion to send his team to the finals, 29-27.
After the match, Egan said, “We were all a little bit below par and nobody really stood out. That’s a credit to Austin who did a great defensive job. They really shut us down and our ability to go wide. It really came down to old school rugby getting ugly and down to the physical hard stuff. Who could get the hard yards and defend hard.”
Belmont will have a two-week break to prepare for the East champion, Mystic River, at Infinity Park. “We have to do our homework on Mystic as we don’t know much about them and I’m sure they are doing the same for us,” Egan concluded. “I believe they are a fit, expansive team and we have to make sure we are ready. We were under par against Austin and we have a good bit more to improve. We really have to focus on ourselves and make sure we get a better platform and we tactically play better than we did this weekend. Finals are finals and anything can happen.”
Women’s Division I
Since winning the DI National Championship last season, Life West Gladiatrix has been taking no prisoners in 2018 scoring an average of 56 points per game and holding their opponents to ten points a game. In the western final on Sunday, Life West lived up to their averages dominating the Austin Valkyries, 58-7.
The game wasn’t close as the Gladiatrix scored ten tries before Austin put the last try in with six minutes left. Outside center Atumata Hingano dotted down four tries in the first half and Catherine Benson added a hat trick in the second half.
“We really set the tone offensively with our line speed,” Life West Director of Rugby Adriaan Ferris said. “We weren’t happy with that from the quarterfinal and were an area we felt we needed to improve on. In the first 10-15 minutes, we put them under a lot of pressure offensively. We have an attack system as such that we have a number of different playmakers across the park and we were probing for offensive opportunities where the defense wasn’t.”
Those playmakers include a talented backline of Lauren Kenyon, Hali Deters, Amy Naber, and Atumata Hingano. “We are very strong across the board but what we worked on this year is making sure that all players in the backline have an ability to work their forward pod into attacking shape, Ferris stated. “Each player has a responsibility in a specific role. We’ve really put the emphasis on the four of them moving everyone around the field.”
The victory sets up a rematch with Raleigh for the championship. “We’re excited,” Ferris exclaimed. “We won the game last year and we didn’t play as well as we could of. This year, it’s a matter of putting in a performance that the girls are capable of. We know Raleigh is tenacious and physical. We expect a real battle on our hands.”
Men’s Division II
The Denver Barbarians capped their undefeated year with a statement victory in the DII semifinals against the San Diego Old Aztecs. The Pacific South representative burst out of the gate with back-to-back tries before Denver countered with three tries for the 17-14 advantage. The Old Aztecs settled down and were able to retake the lead at the end of the half, 19-17.
After trailing by two points at halftime, the Barbarians dominated the second period outscoring their opponent seven tries to one to win 60-24 to advance to Glendale. It was a total team effort by the Barbarians with nine different players on the score sheet.
Women’s Division II
Like many of the champions this season, the St. Louis Sabres battled back from a first-half deficit to win the DII Western Championship. Ever since a loss in early April, the Sabres have been on a tear and culminated their spring with a 31-23 victory over the Old Pueblo Lightning to play for the national championship in two weeks.
Old Pueblo snatched a quick lead scoring twice in the first five minutes, however, St. Louis recovered to dot down three tries for the 19-15 advantage at the break. Penalties to end the first half and begin the second cut the lead to one point for the Lightning but that would be the closest it would get. The Sabres would go on to score two more tries before Lightning put the last one in at the death.
Men’s Division III
Although the DI side ultimately fell in their semifinal, the Austin Blacks’ DIII squad outlasted the Wichita Barbarians, 11-7, in the lowest scoring match of the national playoffs. In a game dominated by defense, both teams were locked in a stalemate until the 45th minute when Tane Jericevich connected on a penalty to give the Blacks the lead. The Austin flyhalf notched another PK nine minutes later but Wichita answered with a try in the 61st minute. The Blacks’ Rickey Johnson gave his team some breathing room a few minutes later and the Austin defense held on for the rest of the way to secure the win and ticket to Glendale.