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A year long quest for glory culminates into one goal for two teams on Saturday as Mystic River and the Austin Blacks challenge for the USA Rugby Division I Club Championship at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. Both clubs come from ultra-competitive conferences and battled through fierce opposition in Pittsburgh and Tucson to make it to the final. Each club has the experience and talent to be the DI Champion and on Saturday at 7pm MST, one team will rise and claim victory.
Mystic’s accomplishment has been a few years in the making ever since it merged with Middlesex in 2014. After reaching the DI Final Four last year, Mystic played in the reorganized Atlantic North Conference, which doubled as the American Rugby Premiership, minus Life.
Over the course of the season, Mystic played to a 6-2 record and, ultimately, beat out the defending DI Champion, NYAC, for the second seed to Nationals. After advancing to Pittsburgh, Pa., Mystic dispatched Metropolis, 28-3, and then beat Co-ARP Champion, Old Blue, for the second time this season, 10-5, in a gritty, muddy match.
“Our guys really took it to another level of toughness holding on to win out in Pittsburgh,” head coach Josh Smith said. “Controlling the gain line is always something we need to do to get going.” Smith is looking forward to pristine conditions on Saturday at Infinity Park to fully showcase his team’s abilities. “Just happy to be playing on a clean pitch, Pittsburgh was tough to adapt to.”
Coach Smith has emphasized team culture and accountability throughout the roster this season. “We have set a new standard and players have held each other accountable to keeping that standard. This has worked both on and off the pitch.”
Mystic has the weapons to strike from anywhere on the pitch, but relies on the back row to be the workhorses of the team. “Our back row can get dirty with anyone else in the country, all three of them,” Smith added. “Sean Rafferty, Joe Kokinda, and Jon Schurmitias have massive work rates. Alatasi Tupou has been solid in the kicking game.”
Captain/hooker Michael Bozza leads his troops into the conflict and will depend the strength of his backs in Jared Collinson, Vini Daley, and Evin O’Driscoll. Flyhalf Robbie Malneek directs the backline and is lethal with his boot or with ball in hand.
Coach Smith knows what his squad will be facing on Saturday when that first whistle sounds. “Austin is a great side that lost a tough match to NYAC in Finals last year. This will be a great match. [We will] Leave emotions in the locker room, play with patience, and enjoy the ride!”
The Austin Blacks are the only team from Men’s Club Rugby to return to the championship from last year. The Blacks were only five points away from reaching the top of the mountain against NYAC last season in the DI Final. Austin has learned from the loss by becoming a more balanced team in the process and now has an intense desire to win on Saturday to reach that elusive summit.
The journey back this season has been tough for the Blacks, but only have one blemish on their record from a one-point road loss to the Dallas Reds. The Blacks defeated the likes of Metropolis and the Kansas City Blues twice in the Rugby Gold Cup and were undefeated in the Red River Conference until the season finale against Dallas.
In the West Regional in Tucson, Ariz., Austin earned its sweet revenge against Dallas in the National Quarterfinals, 24-19, and on Sunday, cracked Life West, 30-17, to return to the DI Championship.
According to head coach Tane Jericevich, the signature moment of the season was when “we were able to come back and win against Dallas, which showed grit. We were also able to do the opposite against Life West. We got out to an early lead and showed the composure to finish the job.”
After losing several players to PRO Rugby and crucial injuries, the strength of the club’s depth has been on display all season. Many players are contributing in unfamiliar areas and stepping up into new roles, which have improved team cohesiveness. Coach Jericevich said, “we are well balanced and everyone is accountable. [This philosophy is] very important to the success of this team.”
Prop Sam Rooke led the forwards with 11 tries on the season and the wing combination of Pierce Reed and Matt Radzavich has a combined 21 tries. Austin finished with a +480 point differential through 18 games and is ready for another Atlantic North foe in the DI Final.
Against Mystic River, Coach Jericevich expects a hard fought physical game that will come down to certain moments. “It's all in the head from here on out. We need to execute our game plan and play with a will to win that is unmatchable.”