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When Mystic River merged with Middlesex three years ago, there was only one goal in mind. On Saturday at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo., that dream became reality as the Malden, Mass. club used a second half surge to beat the Austin Blacks, 45-33, to become the 2016 USA Rugby Men’s Club Division I National Champion. It has been 24 years since Mystic River played in a final and this year, it proved deserving of the crown.

The game featured five lead changes and Austin, the 2015 DI Finalist, was up 26-18 at the half. Inside center Evin O’Driscoll exploded for a hat trick in the second half for a total of four and with 18 total points, outside center Alatasi Tupou earned the Most Valuable Player of the match. The Blacks cut the lead to seven points with ten minutes remaining, but PK and try by Mystic in the final minutes proved to be the dagger bringing home the trophy.

Mystic River head coach Josh Smith told Rugby Today that the key to the game was being patient. “Waiting to find that gap to open up and not having guys force things. The guys did a good job staying within the system, trusting the system, and letting things come to them.”

“Defensively, they scored 33 points on us,” Smith added. “I don’t think we shut them down, but we did do enough to slow them down... In the second half, we really sat back and decided if they were going to beat us, they were going to run through us.”

The first half was very competitive. Coach Smith described it saying, “in the first five minutes we got what we wanted using width and patience on offense and did a good job moving the ball. About 15-20 minutes in, we lost our composure and made some big mistakes.”

“Austin immediately turned unforced errors into points going the other way. The last 25 minutes of the first half was painful to watch because we though we got off the way we wanted and we kept shooting ourselves in the foot with bad mistakes.”

Scoring started early in the match as Mystic’s Tupou found a gap beating three defenders to the try line. Austin responded with wing Pierce Reed sprinting downfield, but he was caught from behind. Fortunately for the Blacks, Mystic was penalized and flyhalf Stephen Jones split the uprights for his team’s first points.

Mystic came right back and scored three minutes later as fullback Jared Collinson found open space then offloaded to O’Driscoll for the try. Austin refocused and took the lead with back-to-back tries. First, Reed found the corner after a pass from Levi Kereti and precision passing from Jones saw Matt Radzavich to the endzone. Jones nailed the second conversion for the 15-12 lead.

Tupou and Jones traded penalties to make the score 18-15 before Radzavich added to the Austin tally after another great pass from Jones. The kickers exchanged penalties at the end of the half with the Blacks up 26-18.

During the half, Coach Smith focused his attention on his team, not Austin. “We didn’t talk about Austin, we talked about ourselves. We had to get our ship right. We liked what we were doing on offense and were getting what we wanted. Limiting those mistakes and cherishing the ball when we had it [were key.]”

Down only by eight to begin the second half, Mystic came out on fire determined to make its mark on the championship. At the 50th minute, prop Luke Schlotmann found pay dirt following a turnover. After an official review, the try stood and Mystic narrowed the gap to one point at 26-25.

Two minutes later, Mystic found its opportunity to break the game open when Austin’s Jones was sent to the bin for a high tackle. The Malden club stepped on the gas to made the Blacks pay as flyhalf Robbie Malneek made a sweet no-look pass to O’Driscoll for the try.

The yellow card was the turning point of the game. “Obviously, the first score of the second half was going to be big either way,” smith said. “Schlotmann barreling over was big. When Jones picked up the yellow card, that was the focal point of their offense coming off the field. That was a pretty big point in the match.”

Austin was able to kill off the rest of the yellow, but the momentum clearly was in favor of its opponent. Mystic’s backs terrorized the Blacks defense as O’Driscoll scored his third try beating four would-be tacklers to dot the ball down under the posts.

With about ten minutes left, Austin found itself with down by nine with little time remaining. A Mystic penalty set the Blacks up inside the 22 where the forwards marched to within five meters. Another Mystic penalty restarted the attack and flanker Paul Benade bounced off two defenders for the try. After the conversion, Mystic only held a four-point lead at 37-33.

With both sides extremely fatigued and cramping up on the field, the last tense minutes would decide the match. Hard hits kept coming from both squads as each team wanted the glory of the DI title. After a not releasing penalty, Tupou added to the lead with a PK to make it a seven point lead.

Needing to score fast, Austin moved the ball downfield with hard slicing runs, but were hit once again with the penalty bug at the 22. The Blacks regained possession after a kick and were reset with a scrum following an unplayable ball.

Mystic’s scrum forced a penalty and the ball was spun out to the backs where Chris Frazier broke line. The reserve was caught within two meters of the line, but O’Driscoll picked ball from the ruck and beat three men for the dagger try. Less man a minute remained and after the kickoff, Frazier kicked the ball into touch. The referee blew the whistle signaling a Mystic River 45-33 victory and DI Championship.

This first national championship means everything for Mystic River and serves as validation for everyone who has contributed to the program. “When we started putting this thing together last fall, we were excited about playing the ARP sides,” Smith said. “To finish off what started as a great season means everything for this team... Obviously, we hadn’t been there in 20 years and we never finished anything off, so it was very important.”

The three Mystic men of the match who had the most impact were Evin O’Driscoll, Alatasi Tupou, and Joe Shurmaitis.

“Whether its 7s or 15s, O’Driscoll is always one of those guys when there is a big match, he is at his best,” Smith responded regarding the four try scorer. “He’ll have some matches when he’s steady, mistake free, and doesn’t do a lot on offense, but then you get into a match like this and he goes off for four tries. He is unflappable when it comes to the situation and he got some on Saturday.”

“Tupou set the tone and scored the first try on a pretty good effort on his own to get us going,” Smith stated about the MVP. “He really bore down and was really cramping in 20 minutes left. He fought our trainer to stay in there and gutted through the last 20 minutes. It was a great effort by him to finish things off for us.”

Coach Smith raved about the play of flanker Joe Shurmaitis and indicated that he was one of the major catalysts in the victory. “Shurmaitis did all the dirty work and all the tough things that don’t show up on the scoreboard. He finished every carry on the front foot forward and setting our attack to keep coming around the corner. If we don’t have that, we don’t get to use our backs the way we want. He didn’t have very many huge runs, but he was just a menace offensively and defensively in contact.”

With no players leaving their cleats on field and new college recruits coming into the program, Mystic River will reload and be ready to defend its DI title in 2017.

Match Details

06.04.16 Glendale, Colo.
Final Score
Mystic River
45
@
Austin Blacks
33