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The West and Texas square off this weekend in the DI Round of 32 crossover matches.
The Austin Blacks (Texas #1) host the Kansas City Blues (West #4), the Dallas Harlequins (Texas #2) host the Provo Steelers (West #3), the Glendale Raptors (West #2) host the Dallas Reds (Texas #3) and the Denver Barbarians (West #1) host the Austin Huns (Texas #4).
The Barbarians and Raptors should be considered heavy favorites to win their matches, as both are legitimate National Championship contenders.
But the Reds have gotten a nibble at the Sweet 16 the last couple of years and would like to return. And the Huns proved to be a very tough out in the Round of 32 last season. The Huns entered the season with high expectations and hopes, but wins haven’t been as easy to come by in the second half of the season. Nonetheless, expect them to put up a considerable fight.
Glendale and Denver are also coping with the disappointment of not making the Elite Cup postseason, so if they’re not playing up to snuff, they could be somewhat vulnerable.
“Obviously, the Elite Cup was a first for us. It was a learning curve,” said Glendale coach Andre Snyman.
“But we as a club have always played in the DI Championships and we’ve been pretty successful the last couple of years, so that’s definitely a high priority for the team – to do well in the DI playoffs, and that starts this weekend with the first hurdle in the Round of 32.”
Texas’ top two teams will have to work a little harder to win their way into the Sweet 16, as Provo and Kansas City are annually competitive.
Had the West seeding race ended at the end of the regular season, Provo would have been the top seed. The Steelers are used to making it to the Sweet 16, and they’ll be a tough out for the Harlequins.
In Austin, the Blacks will try to reverse the result from a 2010 meeting with the Blues in this very game. The Blacks finished second in Texas that year and hosted Kansas City. They led the visitors at the end of 80 minutes, but a controversial try in injury time saw the Blues take the upset and advance to the Sweet 16.
“We’ve actually revisited it and the guys have watched the tape from that game, really just for some extra motivation,” said Blacks coach Lachlan Ferguson. “The team that we’ve got now is vastly different, and we’re playing a much better style of rugby than we were three years ago. So we’ve looked at it, but it’s mainly a motivational thing at this point.”
Austin only has a handful of players still on the team that played the Blues in 2010, and Kansas City has been overhauled with youth since then.
“It’s pretty much a brand new squad that’s playing, and I think the same applies for Kansas City,” said Ferguson.
“They were obviously very successful last year. They made the Elite 8 like we did. I watched them played Belmont Shore. I thought they were pretty unlucky in California, so we certainly are prepared to play a very tough side on Saturday.”
The Blues are not the same squad that played last spring, even, but the core of the team is still there. The Blues have had some promisingly close losses at home to Glendale and Denver but some worrying road results against the likes of Tulsa and Metropolis this spring. If the Blues can travel well to Austin, they’ll have a shot.