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In the rubber match between #1 UM-Duluth and #4 Salisbury, the Fighting Penguins defeated the Sharks for the second time in three years, 30-18, in order to advance to its fourth consecutive USA Rugby Division II National Championship on Sunday. Playing at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., the two-time defending National Champions employed a second half ball control offense to starve the Sharks of possession and hold on for the victory. In a physical match on both sides, UM-Duluth’s team philosophy smartly used the clock as an ally to protect the lead and earn the win.
“I’m pleased with how the boys played,” UM-Duluth head coach Jeramy Katchuba said. “We’ve got quite a bit of work to do if we plan on making it a competitive game tomorrow. We missed a lot of tackles we normally don’t miss, which was allowing Salisbury quite a few line breaks.”
“We got a lead and we tried to protect that lead, while still playing aggressive,” Katchuba added regarding his team’s second half. “We put a higher value on the ball [in the second half] making sure we didn’t turn it over in tackle and trying to get support. Fitness played a part on both sides.”
The Fighting Penguins struck first three minutes in the game as multiple phase attacks led to an Anthony Wilson try. Flyhalf Trace Bolstad missed the conversion, but UM-Duluth had drawn first blood. Salisbury answered by threatening at the doorstep of the tryline, but decided to go for points instead of the try following a coming in from the side infraction. The penalty kick by Blake Carroll narrowed the early advantage to two points as UM-Duluth led, 5-3.
The Sharks looked like they were on their way to a significant drive when Mike Mullens turned the ball over and UM-Duluth’s outside center Logan Hanson pounced and sprinted 50 meters for the try. With Bolstad’s conversion increasing the lead to 12-3, Salisbury did not let the unfortunate bounce bring them down.
After a missed penalty by Carroll in the 18th minute, Salisbury’s scrumhalf hit on a short range PK two minutes later. The Sharks kept up the momentum and following a five-meter tap, Prince Etim Eyo scored Salisbury’s first try after a series of pick and goes at the line. Carroll’s conversion was wide, but Salisbury only trailed by one point at 12-11.
UM-Duluth rallied at the end of the half to score in the 36th minute. Fullback Matt Martin sliced up the Shark defense to set up his teammates deep in enemy territory. After a five-meter penalty, No. 8 Luc Desroches powered through four defenders for the try. Bolstad nailed the points after and the Fighting Penguins held an eight point lead at halftime, 19-11.
The style of offense shifted in the second half for UM-Duluth as it switched to a ball control offense to starve Salisbury of possession. The Fighting Penguins picked up the pressure on both sides of the ball in order to guard the lead. In the 45th minute, UM-Duluth’s method worked as it consistently moved the ball down the field with the forwards and finally shot it out wide to wing Randall Tanaka for the try.
Salisbury would make some gains throughout the half, but UM-Duluth’s tenacity and ball control proved too much for the Sharks. Bolstad slotted two more penalty kicks at the 50th and 74th minutes to bring the score to 30-11 with five minutes to go. A bruising forward try by Eli Hyman in the last minute brought Salisbury closer, UM-Duluth had inflicted enough damage to secure its fourth straight appearance in the National Championship.
Coach Katchuba praised the effort of his squad and singled out the play a few who left their impression on the match. “Luc Desroches, our eightman, definitely had a great game. Our outside center Logan Hanson and fullback Matt Martin played really well and carried the team.”
Assessing his club’s performance, Coach Katchuba saw many positives, but said that UM-Duluth needs to shore up several things in order to defeat a team like UW-Whitewater. “Our lineouts were a struggle today, which are normally one of our strengths. We need to get our throws down. Definitely need to run around the field and make our tackles. Whitewater did a great job of getting the ball out to their wings and fullback. If we don’t make our tackles on the inside, they definitely get in and out of their phases quickly. We’ll have a long day if we don’t make our tackles.”
Looking forward to Sunday’s National Championship, Katchuba expects a full effort from his men if they want their third straight title. “If we win it, we’ll have played as a team. We need our full bench, our full 23 to play as a team. We’ve got to play great defense and we need to carry the ball to little more aggressively than we did today. If we do that, we got an opportunity.”