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Pool A at the 2016 USA Rugby Emirates Airlines Club 7s National Championships will be intense with multiple teams that can put up points this weekend in Commerce City, Colo. The Seattle Saracens come in as one of the favorites, but the Kansas City Blues are poised to challenge the frontrunners this year. After missing out last year, New Orleans makes its return to Nationals and the newcomer Austin Huns are ready to prove they belong at the table.
The defending USA Rugby Club 7s National Champions, the Seattle Saracens, lead the way in Pool A as the Pacific North’s #1 seed. Last year’s title was the Saracens third in a row and eighth overall. 2016 marks the 17th appearance for Seattle in its vairous incarnations where it is looking for a similar result.
Led by Eagles Mike Palefau, Peter Tiberio, and Miles Craigwell with bruising Fijian William Rasileka, the Saracens are the favorites once again this year. When asked what is different this year, director of rugby Justin Fitzpatrick answered, “This is a more physical group across the board than over the last two or three seasons. There is a lot of power and size within the group.”
“Our expectations, hope, and aim is to continue to push the boundaries of what we are capable of,” Fitzpatrick added. “There is a lot of talent and experience within the group and we need to go out and perform to the best of our ability. If we do that, we believe we have enough talent to be [in contention]... The key for us is to perform, to be mentally sharp and ready to back up two days of really good solid performances.”
In their first summer fully committed to 7s, the Austin Huns grabbed the top seed coming out of the Red River Conference. The Huns topped the first tournament of the season and finished second in the last two, but the Huns aren’t resting on those past achievements. The team is focused on the competition to come ahead and preparing for the challenge.
“We dominated the local events, but expect Nationals to be a huge step up in level of competition,” said Jacob Liberman, head coach of the Huns. “Our opponents will punish every mistake. We can perform to our potential by executing on the aspects of gameplay we control: speed to the breakdown, taking contact on our terms and organizing quickly on defense.”
The Huns expect to face experienced teams with good athletes, but feel as though a mix of creative offense and defense that produces turnovers can carry the team far. “Sani Taylor is a creative attacker,” Liberman said. “Justin Hale is a one hundred-meter scoring threat, and Deon Minnaar creates turnovers in the tackle area.”
After missing out on last year’s tournament, New Orleans features a squad of fresh young faces, many of whom are still in college. Veterans David Buckingham, Ross Bellaci, and Alex Philpott bring the leadership and experience to the club. Aurelian Maury, NOLA’s most valuable back in spring 15s, and Cameron Troxler, co-captain and USA U20 Camp invitee, are the playmakers of the new bunch.
New Orleans expectations are high, but it knows it faces a tough task this weekend. “For a team with so many young players, it's never a good idea to look too far down the road of a two-day championship tournament like this one,” said Trip McCormick, NOLA 7s Program Manager. “Our performance goals and expectations will therefore focus on initial pool play, which is going to be a tough road.”
“We come right out of the gate against Serevi in the first game of the tournament,” McCormick stated. “That challenge speaks for itself. We will need to focus on possession and defense to keep that one tight until halftime...The other two teams in the pool, KC Blues and Austin Huns, will almost certainly both be better teams than anybody we've faced up to this point... I think a realistic goal for us is to finish in the top two in our pool. If we're able to get ourselves in contention for Sunday, we'll re-evaluate from there.”
Coming out of the extremely competitive Frontier Conference, the Kansas City Blues will be making their fourth appearance out of five years at Nationals on Saturday. The Blues placed third two years and are looking to improve on that mark in this year’s tournament. Head coach Scott Kram believes that the high level of competition during the summer in the Frontier has prepared his squad for the rigors of the two-day tournament.
As for the squad, there is a plenty of familiarity and experience within the club to draw upon. Seven players return from last year’s foray and six of whom played for the Blues team that placed third in 2014. Coach Kram stated that Raniera “Naki” Takarangi is the man to watch. “He’s our pivot and puts everything together. We have a lot of guys that have been playing together for the last seven years. We have a lot of cohesion and Naki is the frosting on top of the cake.”
Coach Kram told Rugby Today that possession and not making errors are keys to victory this weekend. “If we play a clean game we can beat anybody. If we make errors and play sloppy like we have for a few times during the summer, it can definitely affect us.”