The Best and Worst of Times in USA Rugby on Saturday

It was a day of duality in much of the American Corner of the Rugby Universe. To blatantly steal a line from Dickens – it was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

The High Notes

The Collegiate Sevens Championship on NBC appeared to be a success (and props to GoDaddy for providing much needed advertising revenue for the two hour block of network time). Over 10,000 rugby fans packed the stadium at PPL Park in Philadelphia and were witness to a day of fantastic rugby.  The handful of matches shown live were outstanding, and while my favorite match of the day was the Army-Navy grudge match (won by the Army Black Knights 19-15 – Go Army! Beat Navy!) the University of California lived up to their billing and played a strong match against Penn State in Pool A, overpowering the Nittany Lions 26-7. 

Cal may be considered the favorites going into tomorrow’s championship matches, but they’ll face a tenacious Utah team in the morning’s quarterfinal match and then will have to face off with the winner of the Army-Texas game in the semifinals. My money’s on Cal and Army moving on to face each other and while I’d love to see Army continue on from there, Cal is still the measuring stick for collegiate rugby in the U.S. They were undefeated this season, going 29-0, and until someone actually does beat them, you have to pick Cal to go all the way and compliment their 15s championship.

(And once again, the biggest lesson to learn from watch Cal play is for a lot of other universities to realize that while they aren’t going to beat the Golden Bears on the 15s field, if they focus their efforts year-round towards Sevens, they might have a chance at stealing the Collegiate Sevens Championship title away from them.)

Meanwhile in the Men’s Club Championship tournaments in Glendale, Colorado, the Tampa Bay Krewe held off a spirited attack by the Old Aztecs from San Diego in a back-and-forth match to move on to the Division II Men’s Club championships tomorrow. The Krewe will square off against New Orleans, who dominated Fresno 38-17 in their semifinal match on Saturday.

In Division III, Metropolis out of Minneapolis, Minnesota jumped to an early lead against the South Bay Rhinos and used that lead to fight off a second half Rhino rally to win 24-19. They’ll face Syracuse, who dominated the Dallas Athletic Rugby Club and were able to keep the Texans off kilter for much of the game as they sped to an easy 25-5 win.

The hometown Glendale Eagles easily handled the Boston Irish RFC 51-10 in the Men’s Club Division I semifinals, while Olympic Club hammered their way past Palmer Chiropractic University, 41-29 in the second semifinal match of the day. The two teams will meet on Sunday in Glendale.

And from the WTF?! Files

Unfortunately, the good cheer for domestic rugby was tempered by the loss the USA National Team suffered at the hands of the English Saxons (the England National Team’s B-side), an 87-8 beating in the first round of the Churchill Cup held in England this year. U.S. coach Eddie O’Sullivan decided against fielding a team with more experienced international players on Saturday, opting instead to give more American domestic players an opportunity to test their skills against a seasoned Saxons team, many of whom are playing to earn a spot on the English national team for this fall’s Rugby World Cup.

The Eagles didn’t have an answer to Saxons winger Miles Benjamin, who scored a hat trick of tries in Saturday’s match – starting off with a quick strike in the fourth minute, running almost untouched from 30-40 meters out, as a response to the American’s jumping to a 3-0 lead.

The American’s lack of playing time as a team, coupled with the international inexperience of some of the newer players, was clearly seen as the match progressed, as the Saxons faster backline and punishing forward play caused the Eagles to repeatedly fall into defensive mistakes.

“It was a very big ask of our team to go against the fully professional England Saxons side, and a lot of our problems were of our own making,” said O’Sullivan.

The world ranked #16 Eagles will try to regroup in time for their second match of the Churchill Cup, a full test match against #17 ranked Tonga. As this is a full test match, with ranking points at stake (unlike the Saxons match), it’s expected that the Eagles will field a much more experienced side loaded with players with more international match play experience. A loss to Tonga could see the U.S. National Team and Tonga switch places in the IRB World Rankings, as the two teams are only separated by .34 points.

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