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Having played the majority of their schedule in the fall, #6 Penn State and #17 Navy are ramping up their competition for the 2017 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championship in April. On Saturday, the clubs clashed in a postseason preview at Prusmack Rugby Complex in Annapolis, Md.
As both clubs’ spring season openers, the teams played tight rugby for the first 40 minutes. In the second half, Penn State scored 21 straight points to begin the period and didn’t look back. In the end, the Nittany Lions ran past the Midshipmen, 60-34.
In new Penn State head coach James Willocks’ first match, Navy offered a good starting point for his club. “Navy is always a tough opposition, strong and physical. Well lead by Coach Flanagan and Co., they challenged us at every contact point and did a great job getting front foot attacking ball.”
“A solid start to the second half helped PSU,” Willocks added about the game. “The interpretations of the new contact laws were interesting and I thought we responded well for the most part... Solid set piece and accuracy at attacking break down helped.”
PSU raced out to a 10-0 behind tries from Jordan Crofts and Tyler May, but Navy responded by tying it up with a penalty by Connor McNerney and a Gordon Livermore try. The Nittany Lions answered with a double shot of a Jimmy Ronan penalty and Ryan McNulty try to lead 18-10.
The final ten minutes of the first half was intense with the teams exchanging blows for an exciting finish. First, Navy’s Tre Fulilove scored in the corner and then PSU’s Rob Irimescu dotted the ball down under the posts in the 38th minute. Navy wasn’t done as Jake Martin scored at the buzzer to only trail by one point, 25-24, at the half.
Navy felt confident going into the second half. “We scored at the half to get within a point and we felt like we had momentum,” Navy head coach Mike Flanagan said. “In the first five minutes of the second half, we turned over our own kickoff and lost the scrum. That led to a score by them and we went from being on the front foot and being on the back foot. That sequence put us in a hole and we fought out of it, but it was just too much.”
The hole Coach Flanagan spoke of was a three-try outburst from Chris Burian, Tyler May, and Joey Freeman to lead 46-24. Navy’s Fulilove would score next, but back-to-back tries from McNulty to complete his hat trick shut the door on any type of comeback. The Midshipmen never gave up and scored a late try by Joe Guthman, but ultimately lost, 60-34.
Coach Flanagan gave an honest assessment of the game saying, “I thought the first half was pretty nip and tuck at 25-24. It was pretty even and then into the second half, they pulled away. They are a rock solid team and played really well. Their #9-#10 (Jimmy Ronan and Mike Dabulas) combination was really good. They found the space and scored some nice tries.”
Coach Willocks was excited for his first game and saw some good moments, but a lot to work on. “This is a great group of young men who have dealt with a lot of adversity and responded in a very positive manner. Credit goes to those who have gone before me and built this program to what it is. Very thankful to be able to work with such a great group.”
In further preparation for the Varsity Cup, both programs will be testing themselves against top college and club talent. Penn State welcomes DI club power Old Blue to University Park on February 26th before going on a Scotland tour in March. For Navy, the Midshipmen travel to South Carolina to play the Glendale Raptors DII squad on February 18th and the Clemson Tigers on February 19th.