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The second leg of the Mid-Atlantic Conference 7s series culminated in the same two opponents, the US Army Selects and Northern Virginia (NOVA), battling in the Cup Final of the Blue Ball 7s in Wilmington, Del. In the wind and rain, the Army Selects prevailed, 24-10, to win their second straight tournament earning a berth into the National Playoffs.
“Overall, I felt we had control of the game,” Army Selects head coach Mark Drown said of the final. “We had much of the time on the ball, the possession. It was apparent that they had one weapon (Conroy Smith) they were trying to use and it was effective because he got both their tries... I would have to credit the Army’s defensive shape and length [as the keys to the game]. When the ball went to ground, our counter-rucking was pretty exceptional. That was our strength in the tournament.”
With the Potomac Exiles pulling out before the tournament started, the host club, the Wilmington Rugby Club, were not able to reshuffle the pools in the Men’s Premier division. The US Army Selects dominated their pool of Schuylkill River, Pittsburgh Pandas, and the Washington Irish; while NOVA were undefeated against Baltimore-Chesapeake and and the Norfolk Blues.
Baltimore-Chesapeake and Schuylkill River advanced to face the Army Selects and NOVA in the semifinals. With the weather conditions worsening as the semifinals began, Schuylkill River gave NOVA a good run, but NOVA persevered, 22-12. The Army Selects blanked Baltimore-Chesapeake 36-0 to set up the Cup Final against NOVA. In the consolation final, Schuylkill River shutout Baltimore-Chesapeake, 34-0.
In the championship, the bad weather picked up and brought the competition level closer for both sides. However, the quick strike offense and opportune defense of the Army Selects proved too much for NOVA. Mattie Tago (2), Andrew Locke, and Steve Johnson each had a try for the Army Selects and burner Conroy Smith had both of NOVA’s tries.
According to Army team captain Andrew Locke, the key to the game was a missed opportunity early in the match for NOVA. “We scored the first and they had a great break. Their wing (Smith) got the ball, broke around the outside, had a good run and coming in the try zone and I was playing sweeper. He was going for the middle to center the ball and ending up knocking on the ball in goal. It was a key moment for them because mentally, they score that and they were right in the game. Not getting that and then us scoring off the next set piece was key to the game.”
“It was a final that played in horrendous conditions,” NOVA head coach Clarence Williams stated. “Both teams had to endure really cold rain, gusts of wind. It was a bit sloppy from a ball-handling standpoint. Once again, it was Army’s defense that proved to be the difference. For us, we again made poor decisions in contact and once we were able to break their line, they were able to capitalize on turnovers either created by us or by them.”
For NOVA, Conroy Smith had a really strong day on the wing that was aided by Eagle Thretton Palamo defensive presence, particularly in the Schuylkill River semifinal. Flyhalf Gareth Willatt provided good control of the offense and shined on defense with his tackling and turnover ball. Prop Detwan Robinson was a force to be handled running the ball down the sideline on his wing.
Mattie Tago earned the game ball for the Army Selects scoring two tries in the final and being a wrecking crew on both sides of the ball. Will Holder and Ben Leatigaga continued their stellar work to keep their club at the top.
With the next tournament two weeks away at NOVA’s Battlefield-Ruggerama 7s in Leesburg, Va., the Army Selects will be sporting an altered roster as they prepare for the weeks ahead. “The roster will be very different based on military training schedules and availability,” Locke said. “We have a big pool to draw from... and our intention is to build towards the Armed Forces Championship to evaluate some new players.”
With one qualifier left, NOVA’s Williams said there is plenty to play for. “These are close games. It’s pretty clear that Army has come out and set a standard that we are all trying to meet. I think that in just one week that gap has been closed some. Not just by us, but by teams like Schuylkill River and Baltimore. There’s nothing that we take for granted. These guys are competitive and hungry.”
Schuylkill River over Washington Irish 33-0
Army Selects over Pittsburgh 26-0
Baltimore-Chesapeake over Norfolk 15-0
NOVA over Potomac Exiles fft.
Army Selects over Washington Irish 40-12
SR over Pittsburgh 24-7
NOVA over Norfolk 32-5
Baltimore-Chesapeake over Potomac Exiles fft.
Army Selects over Schuylkill River 19-5
Pittsburgh over Washington Irish 34-0
Norfolk over Potomac Exiles fft.
NOVA over Baltimore-Chesapeake 19-10
NOVA over Schuylkill River 22-12
Army Selects over Baltimore-Chesapeake 36-0
Schuylkill River over Baltimore-Chesapeake 34-0
Army Selects over NOVA 24-10