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The USA Rugby Men’s Club Division I Eastern National Semifinal was the rubber match between two foes with plenty of history duking it out in the rain and mud. At Founder’s Field in Pittsburgh, Pa., Mystic River and Old Blue battled the field conditions in a contest for field position. Tactical kicking was on display with both teams trying to find an edge. In the end, ten first half points by Mystic River, including two tough kicks in the mud from outside center Alatasi Tupou, was enough to defeat Old Blue, 10-5, and advance to the DI National Championship in Glendale, Colo.
“We knew the second after the match ended against Metropolis and knew we were getting Old Blue, it was going to be a war,” Mystic River head coach Josh Smith said. We battled them for the third time now in all different conditions and every time has been very close. With these conditions, it was really tough for us. We got out of our comfort zone as we want to run the ball and there wasn’t very many options to run.”
“Our #10 Rob Malneek did a great job flipping the field and honestly, it was a game of atrophy,” Smith added. “[James] Bird is flipping it back, we are flipping it back trying not to kick to Luke [Hume]. We caught the one gap when Tasi [Tupou] got them in the first half and in the second half, our tight five just held on for dear life. To me, the tight five and the back three really had the answers to the questions today.”
Both squads were playing for territory all game putting with the backs putting on a kicking clinic as field position was paramount. With the conditions as they were, whoever made the least mistakes would win. This would be the third contest between the clubs this cycle as each team won their respective home game during the regular season.
After the game began with each side sending bombs back and forth, Old Blue had first chance at points after a Mystic high tackle. Setting up about 30 meters out to the left of the posts, flyhalf James Bird pushed the kick wide. Back came Mystic and after a not releasing call, Tupou gave his club the 3-0 lead.
About 30 minutes into the match, fortunes shined on Mystic when an Old Blue player was sent off for a high tackle around the neck. With the man advantage, Mystic’s Rob Malneek broke the line on a counter from an Old Blue kick and then dished to Tupou. Running in support, Evin O’Driscoll took the offload in for the try. Tupou completed the seven-point play and Mystic took a 10-0 lead into the half.
Shortly after halftime, Old Blue returned to full strength, but the New York club had trouble getting close to goal. In the 50th minute, Mystic had an opportunity to build on its lead, but Tupou missed the penalty in front of the posts. With conditions continuing to tear up the field, each team desperately tried to find an opening to score.
Old Blue got its best chance for points setting up a five-meter lineout after a great kick to touch by Bird. Known for its dominant maul, Old Blue set it up perfectly and bulldozed its way in for the try. The conversion from the sideline was off target and Mystic was up, 10-5.
With only five points separating the clubs on the scoreboard, Old Blue was on the offensive once more with precious time remaining. Old Blue spent over five minutes inside the five-meter line that included four restart scrums and one held-up try. Mystic weathered each salvo finally forcing a penalty and kicked out of trouble.
According to Mystic captain Michael Bozza, the goal line stand “came down to heart. They were in our 22 for the last 15 minutes of the game and forwards held tall and chopped down the bigger pack. They made the key plays when it was clutch time.”
In the last throes of the contest, there was about 90 seconds left after an Old Blue injury timeout. Mystic’s defense buckled down fighting its opponent until the last whistle. Old Blue never gave up and kept brawling until the last play when a knock on ended the match. Mystic River leapt in celebration rejoicing its return to the National Championship for the first time in 19 years.
Coach Smith named Rob Malneek as the player of the game. “He did a great job flipping the field and was mistake-free at cleaning the ball up. We rotated him from offensive #10 to fullback on defense to try to take away their kicking game. We didn’t take it away, but we did a good job reversing the field and making them play back from their side.”
With the Austin Blacks awaiting Mystic River in Glendale in two weeks, Coach Smith knows to be prepared for anything. “When you get to the National Championships, you are going to be up against a solid team. I got a pretty good look at Austin at the Gold Cup and they are a pretty good rounded team. They have some good flankers, can move the ball, and their #10 looked pretty solid. We have two weeks and we’ll dig some film up. Honestly, I’ll be happy to be on a dry track and back to playing our kind of rugby spinning the ball all around the park.”