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If each pool has a theme, Pool A’s is question marks. Who the heck is playing for Charlotte? Denver is back at Nationals, but are they the Barbos that finished 12th last season or those that have made the finals in years prior? Are the Old Aztecs enough of a team to win it all? And how good is NYAC?

Charlotte is largely a different team than the one that went to Nationals a couple of years ago. Morgan Salesa was the star then, and he’s long gone. This team is anchored by some young talent coming from some of the South’s stronger college programs and the territorial all star team.

Matt Hughston, a RUGBYMag DII All American center from ECU and Charlotte native, wrangled in former ECU and South All Star teammates Justin Bourgeois and Bobby Allen. And two Tennessee standouts, Nick Evans and Sammy Anderson, also joined Charlotte this summer. (Evans was just named to the All American touring squad.)

“Last year we tried to start our own Greenville squad and it ended up dissipating as the summer went on,” said Bourgeois, explaining how the current Charlotte team came to be. “This summer Bobby and Matt said they were going to try to put together a team for Nationals with Charlotte, and here we are.”

“Sammy and Nick and Matt and Bobby are all great players, they’re all young and we’re all around each other’s age, so it’s kind of cool.”

Charlotte qualified for Nationals by finishing second in the South Championship, but the South didn’t show well in last year’s championship. And not once this century has a South team made the semifinals. But, says Bourgeois, this year could be different.

“Overall, our fitness is pretty good between all of us, and I think we have a good chance to win some games, for sure.”

The Barbarians have been the embodiment of consistency. They play a very strong, structured pattern, they excel in set pieces and they have reached Nationals 12 years running. The consistent mainstays, like Maximo DeAchaval, Jake Humphrey and Ben Haapapuro, are there. But the one thing the Barbos have lacked lately is a home run hitter, someone who can score from anywhere at any time.

Enter Hunter Leland and Taylor Howden. They both have the ability to make people miss and to wiggle through a small gap for tries. They have given the Barbos a different dimension this summer, and are a large part of Denver winning the toughest West series of the last few years.

This year will be Howden’s fourth-straight trip to Nationals, but only his first time returning with a team he’d already made it with. He led Glendale there in 2009, went with the Barbos in 2010 when they finished fourth, and the he won the title with Belmont Shore last season.

“I’m not being cocky or anything else, but I’m going to Nationals,” said the Kiwi who moved to the States at 19. “I’ve played for three great clubs in that time, and I won a National Championship with a club I have a lot of respect for in Belmont Shore, especially coach James Walker, and now I’m back at Nationals with another good club. I’m over the moon.”

The Barbos have had moments of sheer brilliance this summer, like a 42-7 drubbing of Aspen in Denver and the entire Houston Qualifier, in which they only conceded two tries. But they’ve also had a few bouts with mediocrity, like the semifinal in Kansas City when the Blues pounded them 26-7.

If the Barbos are playing their best, they should be a force to be reckoned with.

“We’re not a dark horse by any means,” he said, “but I think teams are going to have to watch out for us.”

Old Aztecs
The Old Aztecs are an interesting amalgamation. Of their roster of 12, four played for the 7s Eagles last season, four for San Diego State, three played 15s for different DI men’s clubs (Austin, Belmont Shore and OMBAC) and one for the U20s. Only two played 15s for the Old Aztecs, and one, Peter Tiberio, hasn’t played for them all summer, as he’s been nursing a broken arm suffered in June at the Collegiate Rugby Championships.

Pierce Reed and Justin Boyd are Texas residents playing in SoCal this summer. Reed, a former West All Star and Atlantis player, camped out in San Diego for a few weeks to train with the team, while Boyd flew back and forth between California and Texas to juggle 7s and work.

All that, coupled with the fact that player/coach Matt Hawkins has done a lot more playing than coaching, means the biggest hurdle for the talented Old Aztecs will be playing as a team.

Boyd played in a similar, but probably not as drastic, situation last summer with Belmont Shore.

“For me, I feel like I have an advantage because of the level I’ve played at, so I’m able to not have to be there but kind of soak it I,” he said, “because I’ve played with Hawk and I’ve been coached by him. I pretty much know what kind of game plan he wants, so I try to go out there and execute it.”

The Old Aztecs have a ton of pace, and they have a ton of experience (Riaan Hamilton, Kelm, Boyd and Hawkins all played on the National Championship Belmont team last summer). Only time will tell if they have the adhesiveness of a true team.

The opposite of Denver, the AC has been anything but consistent this summer.

In the first qualifier, NYAC won the final by an astonishing score of 63-7. In the second qualifier, they lost big to Old Blue in the semis, 40-5. In the third qualifier, NYAC again fell to Old Blue, but by just seven. In the Northeast Championships, NYAC conceded 21 unanswered second-half points to fall to Old Blue again, this time 28-7.

Coached by former USA 7s head man Al Caravelli and skippered by former 7s Eagle Justin Hundley, NYAC ought to be more consistent. But such is the case with many 15s clubs who make deep runs into the playoffs, some guys need time off throughout the summer, and NYAC had its share of inconsistency in the lineup week to week.

That trend continues, as former Ireland 7s captain and Ulster flanker Neil McMillan isn’t on the roster for Nationals.

But, NYAC will have the services of the Delaware trio -- Jimmy Kowalski, Stephen Sanchez and Chris Mattina, which has proved vital this summer. They’ll also have the pair of Gotham Knights teammates, Joseph Hunt and Daniel O’Connor, along with 15s stud Alistair McFarland and Iona alum Tim Nervina.

The lingering question with NYAC is, do they have enough pace?