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Another epic 80 minutes of rugby and then some was played on Saturday between service academy rivals, Army and Navy, in West Point, N.Y. Defense was paramount during the match as each squad tested the resolve of its opponents. After coming back from an 11-point deficit, Army was up 24-18 with no time remaining. The Midshipmen held possession in extra time and pounded on the Army defense. The Black Knights would not yield for six minutes and finally won the match following a Navy penalty.
“Both teams left everything out on the field,” Army head coach Matt Sherman said. “I’m incredibly proud of our boys. I don’t think it was our most clinical or precise performance, but it’s the first time this season that we were in a position where we had to chase a game.
“We kept our composure, stayed the course, and fought our way through the struggle,” Sherman added. “To dig deep and just keep getting off the ground and making tackles and getting to the line six minutes into injury time, I’m very proud of the effort.”
For Navy, head coach Mike Flanagan was confident in his team, but couldn’t pull out the victory in the end. “We went into the game, executed our game plan, and did what we wanted to do. We had them on the back foot, we neutralized their #8 (Bailey Abercrombie) and their #15 (Jake Lachina), both quality players. One thing we didn’t get done was their lineout. They scored two tries off a driving lineout in the last ten minutes. We made some mistakes and put them in position to create that opportunity.”
Playing at the Anderson Rugby Complex next to the Hudson River, Navy was first on the board with a Conor McNerney penalty in the third minute. McNerney got another chance in the 22nd minute to give the Midshipmen a 6-0 with just over half the period over.
Both teams had their chances at goal, but it was try time first for Army in the 34th minute as the Black Knight forwards crashed the ball at the goal line before scrumhalf Jon Kim skip passed to the wing Jeff Malm-Annan for the score. Kim connected on the conversion for the 7-6 Army lead.
Navy responded on the restart marching downfield getting inside the 22. From the back of a ruck, scrumhalf Gardy Lebon dummied the defender and slipped past the defense for the try. McNerney added the conversion for the 13-7 halftime lead.
The start of the second half didn’t begin well for Army as eightman Bailey Abercrombie was binned for not getting back following a penalty. The Black Knights dodged a bullet as the ensuing penalty kick hit the upright, but weren’t as lucky six minutes later. After a Navy five-meter scrum, the forwards moved closer to the line with three consecutive phases then a quick pass to Piper Thaler dove over for the 18-7 try.
Once back to full strength, Army settled down and refocused. Kim jumpstarted the offense with a run offloading to Luke Huen then onto Malm-Annan inside the five. From the ruck, reserve prop Austen Deppe put his head down and drove through the defense to score. Kim nailed the conversion to cut the lead to 18-14.
In the final ten minutes, Army utilized one of their most deadly tools to retake the lead, its lineout. In the 69th minute, a Navy penalty set Army with the throw-in about ten meters from goal. The Black Knights brought down the ball and used the rolling maul to push over for a try for the freshman Abercrombie. Kim was unable to convert, but Army had the one-point advantage.
Army regained possession on the restart after the ball didn’t go ten meters. Reserve #9 Garrison Farrell moved his troops downfield and found an opportunity on the weak side where the defense wasn’t set. Abercrombie received the pass and split two defenders on the sideline for the 20-meter try. With the ball hitting the left upright on the conversion, Army held a six-point lead with six minutes to go.
The action in the final minutes was intense and you can expect nothing less when these teams meet. After Navy moved the ball to the five-meter line, Army’s Eli Brown poached. An attempt to clear was blocked, but Navy was called for the knock. The Army kick couldn’t find touch and Navy brought it back to the 22. Another Army poach resulted in a scrum.
Into extra time, Army kept it close with the forwards, but a box kick gave Navy the ball back. Navy set up a scrum inside the 40 and after successive penalties had another scrum inside the 22. The Army defense was stout and after over 20 total phases and over six minutes of extras, the Midshipmen knocked the ball on and the referee blew the whistle to end the match, 24-18.
Speaking of those final minutes into injury time, Sherman said, “It was a tremendous inspirational effort. You can’t give that much unless you are doing it for other people you care about. This team is very close, care deeply about each other and I thought that showed with how they finished the heroic effort.”
Flanagan commented on those moments saying “We kept the ball in our hands, we kept working massively hard and they kept defending. It was a combination of our skill in retaining the ball and run our shape, creating some penalties that allowed us to keep the ball. We had 20+ possessions. It was close. I never thought we were in danger of losing that game and I thought for sure we would score. In the end, we had a bit of miscommunication and left the ball on the ground. It was a phenomenal end from a pressure standpoint for both teams. They were on the back foot playing off it and we were on the front foot fighting it.”
Sherman attributed his team’s composure as the key to the win. “Things were not going our way and were not playing very well. We didn’t panic. We just stayed the course and allowed ourselves to slowly play back into the game. Being down two tries late, we trusted each other, trusted our system, and fought our way through it to take the lead.”
Sherman applauded the effort of his finishers who came off the bench. “Harrison Farrell at #9 really turned the game by adding a new dimension to it. Will Miller had a nice impact. Both of those guys were hugely positive. It was a team effort and everyone contributed.”
“Army versus Navy, in my opinion, is the fiercest college rivalry out there,” Sherman said on the significance of the game. “It’s an interesting dynamic. Someday, these two teams, these young men are going to be brothers in arms fighting a common enemy. On that battlefield, victory is the only possible result. When Army plays Navy, that’s the same mindset, you must win. It’s about service supremacy, but it's more about pushing each other to be the best because someday we’ll need to be the best together.”
Both clubs head to the Varsity Cup on April 8th with Army hosting Notre Dame and Boston College at Navy.