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At a time when most teams are resting and preparing for the DI Club Regional Playoffs on Saturday, two teams continued their efforts to get better against high-quality competition. The results were mixed for the Austin Huns and the Chicago Lions as they played the Rugby Utah Select XVs and Old Blue, respectively. In both games, the first halves were hotly contested, but in the second halves, one team pulled away. For the Huns, Austin came back from a seven-point deficit to win 59-37. In Chicago, the Lions fell to Old Blue, 45-14, after a dominant four-try second half by the New York club.
In Austin, Texas, after HP Moore scored the first try of the match for the Huns against Rugby Utah, the Select XVs scored three tries and penalty to lead 22-7. Deon Minaar and Peter Malcolm scored at the end of the half to cut the tally to 22-21.
The second half couldn’t have started worse for Rugby Utah as a player was red carded for dangerous play. Minaar scored immediately after through the forwards to take the 28-22 advantage. Although the Select XVs were down a man for the rest of the test, they remained competitive trading blows with the Huns.
Ultimately, Austin scored six tries to Rugby Utah’s three in the second half for the victory. In addition to Minaar's second try, Brian Welborn, Martin Knoetze (2), David LeMasters, and Andrew Heller each scored in the second for the Huns. Zinzan Elan-Puttick was six for nine on conversions.
Speaking with Rugby Today after the match, Austin head coach Eugene Eloff said, “It was a very good game in the beginning and we had a few scoring opportunities that missed. They came out at a blazing pace and were ahead for the first 20 minutes, but we kept our composure and stuck to our structures. Once we got momentum, especially in the second half, they seemed to tire out.”
“Our guys were more patient, they held onto the ball, and our execution was better,” Eloff added. “Our fitness gave us the edge as our accuracy was much better in the second half.”
With SFGG awaiting the Huns in the DI National Quarterfinals on Saturday in Tuscon, Ariz., Austin felt it needed to keep challenging itself ahead of the playoffs. “[Rugby Utah] is physical side. We stood up to the physicality and fortunately, we didn’t have any serious injuries. We will put this behind us and on Monday, we will start preparing for this weekend.”
With the match scheduled months ago, Old Blue of New York flew out to Chicago for a romp against the Lions on Saturday. Chicago came out of the starting gates firing with a try by Kevin Lydon and a 50-meter strike off the boot of JP Eloff for the 8-0 early lead. Old Blue came right back scoring three straight tries from Keenan Jacobs, Connor Wallace-Sims, and Sebastian Kalm to go up, 19-8. Eloff connected on another long-range penalty at the end of the half for the Lions to trail by eight points at the intermission.
Chicago began the second half with Eloff penalty from the sideline, but that would be the last points the Lions would score. Old Blue’s high tempo style tested the fitness of the Lions and kept pushing the Chicago defense for the entire game. As a result, the visitors scored four unanswered tries through the efforts of Rick Kirkland, Luke Hume, Kalm, and Nate Augspurger for the 43-14 win.
Reflecting on the match, Chicago head coach David Clancy responded, “It was a really good test in the first half and a close game until the half when we had to start pulling players off with the Nationals in mind... Old Blue played well, they played a very high tempo game, they tried to keep the ball in play as much as possible and move it around on what was a fantastic sunny day for expansive rugby. Obviously, they are a quality outfit from 1 to 23 and it was a great learning curve for us and a measure of where we stand in our development as a club aspiring to be the best."
"I honestly think that mentally we were not in the right place for this game with Pittsburgh on everyone’s mind," Clancy said. "We lacked patience and execution in the final third of the field. Defensively, we lost focus on too many occasions and gifted them some easy scores, which is disappointing and uncharacteristic of our side.”
From the Old Blue perspective, coach Dom Wearing complemented Chicago. “The Lions played a great game. You don’t make it to the Elite Eight without being a good team. They were fantastic: great around the breakdown and definitely caused a lot of problems for us there. Defensively, a great team. They have a great kicker as Eloff was slotting them from over 50 meters so we knew if we gave away any penalties, we were going to get punished. They were really good and kept on playing throughout.”
Old Blue has had the unique opportunity of playing three of the four DI teams playing in Pittsburgh and almost played a fourth if not for a scheduling conflict. “They are all great teams,” Wearing said. “Obviously, we’ve seen Mystic and NYAC more than we’ve seen Chicago, but you don’t make this far in DI without being a good team."
“They all offer different styles with different strengths,” Wearing continued. “I really like the way NYAC has increased their forwards game led by Nate Brakeley and Al McFarland and they caused us problems up front. The Chicago Lions got threats all over the park. Mystic River, it’s been nice to get a few wins over them the last times we’ve played them. At full strength, it’s going to be a real arm wrestle between any of those teams. Hopefully, it will be a dry pitch in Pittsburgh to actually see some rugby this year. It’s tough to call who is going to go further.”
When asked what the main takeaway was against Old Blue going into the game against Rocky Gorge in Pittsburgh on Saturday, Clancy noted, “We will need to be more patient in attack and stick to our structure. We need to be ready to lift the tempo of our game. I believe that mentally we will be far more focused next week and will have a couple of key players returning who will make a big difference over the weekend.”