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On Saturday, the titans of the women’s rugby will gather at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. for the USA Rugby Emirates Airline Division I Club National Championship. Emerging from their respective regionals in Pittsburgh and Tucson, the Life West Gladiatrix and the Raleigh Venom will play at 5:00 pm MST to bring home the trophy. With five championships between the two clubs, the DI final will display the best of women’s club rugby in the country.
In its second year of existence, the Life West Gladiatrix have come far since its inception. After winning the DII Championship last season, the Gladiatrix moved up to DI and blew through their Pacific North schedule with ease. Despite a rash of forfeitures, Life West ramped up for the playoffs with advantageous results versus the British Military and the Glendale Raptors.
Once it advanced to the West Regionals in Tucson, Life West made short work of the Austin Valkyries and the Utah Vipers winning by a combined scored of 158-17. According to coach Jarrod Faul, “both Austin and Utah put us under some pressure initially and it took us some time to adapt, but Life West’s determination to grind it out till the final whistle is what gave us two admirable results.”
“Our forward pack gave us some great go-forward led by Bitsy Cairns, Jordan Gray, and Mele Taumoefolau,” Faul said of his squad in Tucson. “The speed of delivery from halfback Nikki Kenyon gave our backs a great platform to attack from and Mata Hingano and Amy Naber capped off a solid weekend scoring 11 tries between them.”
Faul attributes this season’s success to “the ability to keep the ball alive whilst playing at a high intensity. The team continuity has been impressive the entire season.” In order to maintain that intensity and continuity, Life West drills tirelessly as a unit and relies on every member of the club to do their job effectively.
With the mammoth task of the Raleigh Venom awaiting them in Colorado, Faul will have his team ready for the eastern contender. “We know they're effective at the set pieces and they do an accurate job of kicking for space. We have to be disciplined in playing within our structures and being patient with ball in hand... We`ll be looking for a monumental effort from our leadership group of Jen Sever, Catie Benson, Bitsy Cairns, Amy Naber, and Nikki Kenyon who are all capable of making big-time plays.”
With an entry into the Women’s Premier League in play, the only thing in Life West’s way is the Venom. “[Winning the final] means a great deal for us. It gives us great exposure to a rapidly growing program, but ultimately, the goal is to earn the right to challenge for a place in the Women’s Premier League. In order to reach that goal, we must win the DI National Championship.”
On the other side of the bracket is a team that has been the mountaintop multiple times to hoist the trophy on four occasions. After being stopped in the semifinals last year, the Raleigh Venom put an emphasis on making it back to the finals in 2017. In order to prepare for the prize, the Venom battled through a murderer’s row of opposition that included Life, DC Furies, Penn State, Chicago North Shore, and NOVA.
After splitting the series with its rival NOVA during the regular season, the teams met again in the Mid-Atlantic Championship. NOVA edged the Venom, 14-5, in the final, but their season wasn’t over. Through repechage, Raleigh was awarded entrance to the East Regionals in Pittsburgh.
“Once we got our new breath of life, we just approached the quarterfinal and semifinal with the basic skills and techniques we have been doing in practice,” coach Neil Pietila said. “We have a system that works for us and when we play it, good things happen like getting into the Finals.”
Raleigh dispatched Beantown, 41-10, in the quarterfinals, which set up its fourth meeting with NOVA for a ticket to Glendale. After leading 3-0 at the half in the semifinal, the Venom outscored NOVA three tries to two to win 18-10.
“Our greatest strength in regionals was our ability to adapt,” Pietila remarked. “Even with a victory in the quarterfinals, we found some opportunities from the Beantown match that we needed to adjust going into the semifinals against NOVA and everyone just bought in and adjusted our game.”
Raleigh’s Chelsea Garber, Tonya Fletcher, Sara Lundy and Jen Larrimore brought their A games to Pittsburgh to power the team to the National Championship. “Garber and Fletcher stepped up for us in Pittsburgh with their leadership, communication, and each one brought their kicking boots. Both were chipping off massive territory that helped our side get out of pressure and to play in the right area of the field,” Pietila said.
“Sara Lundy was on point with her lineout throws, did a great job in the scrums, and was a threat was her dominant open field running,” Pietila added. “[In the semifinals,] NOVA did a good job at pressuring Chelsea and also cutting off our back three, so Jen Larrimore had to step up into more of a playmaker role. Jen was spot on with her decision making under tremendous pressure whether it was a run, pass, or kick.”
Raleigh prides itself on its defense, fitness, a united structure, and a relentless attack. “We have some very fast and fit athletes that get into the positions that we require for our structures,” Pietila said. “When the forwards are on and we are getting on the front foot, the opportunities are everywhere. Our back three (Sarah Rosche, Holly Zoeller, and Jazamine Gray) are so good and we like to keep them active either creating space for them wide or by tactical kicking.”
With the national championship at stake on Saturday, Raleigh will be ready for the Gladiatrix. “Life West has some good players that have great, high-level experience,” Pietila said. “From the film we have seen, they play a very fast, open field style that has players running solid lines and everyone can create the space with passes and offloads. I think we will frustrate them with pressured kicks and our defense. Our line speed and first up tackles will put them under pressure all match.”
Earning another title means everything for the Raleigh club as a whole. “Reaching the finals is a testament to the desire and dedication of the entire Venom team of over 35 women to win a DI National Championship,” head coach Rick McBride said. “Absolutely would be a great honor to the entire Raleigh Rugby Club (youth, women and men) to add a DI National Championship.”
The action starts at 5:00 pm MST on Saturday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. The match will be streamed live on the Rugby Channel website.