College 7’s National Championship

December 2, 2012

Twenty-four of the nation’s best rugby 7’s teams descended to College Station, Texas the weekend of November 30th to December 1st. They came from far and wide. From San Diego, California; from Bellingham, Washington; from Atlanta, Georgia. And they came from Boston.

When Northeastern qualified for the USA Rugby National 7’s Collegiate Championship many in the rugby world had low expectations.  Some had to run to Google. The popular perception amongst many is that the west coast and warm weather schools have a monopoly on the 7’s game. They play a 7’s season. They train outdoors year round. They have more experience. Predictions were that Northeastern would not emerge from pool play with a winning record. In fact, some media outlets predicted Northeastern would win no games at all.

In proving them wrong Northeastern made a serious statement and garnered praise from many in the rugby community, ended an arduous training and warm-up season, and springboarded into a bright and promising future.

Arriving in Texas on Thursday, the Huskies were excited and nervous, but prepared and focused for the tall task at hand. With the help of committed coaches, players and university officials Northeastern was put in order nicely in the bucolic town of College Station. For many of the 15 man panel, this was their first experience in Texas and the kind of large land grant school that has seemingly unlimited grounds and resources.

Thursday was preparation day for the team. After checking-in to their motel and having a quick turn around, the team headed to the Pemberthy Sports Complex on Texas A&M’s campus. The tournament organization and set up was most impressive. The boys spent some time on the pitch, ran off the cobwebs, and prepared for a legitimate run at some hardware.

In their draw were quality teams with plenty of experience in the 7’s format. The 2011 National Champions and rugby powerhouse Life University drew the top seed, while Big Ten champs Wisconsin took the 2nd spot. Colorado State, having experience against opponents like Utah, BYU, and Air Force was placed 3rd. That left NU to round out Pool A.

Match 1 for NU was against the big boys from Georgia – Life University. Life has been competing at the highest level of American rugby for decades and their 7’s program is stacked with athletes and experienced ruggers. Northeastern was not intimated as the referee’s whistle kicked off match one early Friday morning.

Northeastern knew that Life was not interested in a physical match, preferring to spread the ball wide and open the game up. To that end NU attempted to tackle ferociously, flood the ruck area and slow the ball down. Life opened the scoring up, converting the first try of the match. NU could’ve gone in a shell and conceded defeat. Instead they responded with their own nifty bit of rugby and, with an impressive offload by Shane Tyksinski to captain Ty Taylor, NU opened their own scoring, knotting a tie with the Running Eagles.

Life opened the game up more and more as time wore on and perhaps the previous day’s travels was still worn on the Huskies as the Eagles punched in two more tries before the 1st half whistle. Once again, though, NU could’ve thrown in the towel, but instead realized that they could hang with the best of the country and perhaps even give them a run. Though they were unable to score again they tackled Life well and physically, particularly from Brian Ustas stepping in the starting role. At the final whistle the score was 29-7 in Life’s favor. But that margin did not truly reflect the quality of NU’s effort. It was great encouragement for the rest of the day’s competition.

After match 1 the team had plenty of time off and plenty of time to watch gobs of quality rugby. The club observed some of the best players in the nation compete under beautiful skies and warm weather.

As the day wore on NU began to prepare for match 2 against the Badgers of Wisconsin. The Big Ten champs had upset rugby blue bloods from Penn State and, from the film and scouting report, showed they played a tighter and more physical style than Life. The Huskies were prepared and pitched the kind of match everyone associated with the team knew they were capable of.

From the first whistle the Huskies carried a swagger and confidence clearly carried over from their strong showing against Life. The team took their first lead of the tournament as Taylor punched in his 2nd tournament try after a quick tap penalty five meters out. Unconverted, they Huskies led 5-0.
Wisconsin responded well, and used their dynamic size and experience to move the ball wide and punch in an equalizer to knot it at 5 apiece. With the conversion the Badgers went up 5-7.

As time ticked by in the 1st half Tyksinski tried to keep his skipper’s scoring tally in sight as he notched his first try of the day. With the conversion by Taylor and the halftime whistle the Huskies were up 12-7.

Wisconsin once again went wide, using a great step and dummy pass, to score in the corner and tie up the match 12-12. With some impact substitutes NU hoped fresh legs would make the difference. They did exactly that.

With a nifty offload in the tackle Taylor set up Tyksinski, who made ground, posted the ball well and allowed Greg McInerney to pick, go, and dot the pill over the try-line putting NU up 17-12.

Another impact sub, debutante Matt Murphy, proved to be the right man for the job as he made some bone-crushing tackles defending and surprised himself as he found the ball in hand and no one around to tackle him. Not wasting time Murphy scampered under the posts to put down under the posts, allowing Taylor an easy conversion, and putt the Huskies up for good 24-12.
It was a satisfying win and about as well as the Huskies have played in their 7’s build up.

Match 3, after some more rest,  was against the Rocky Mountain boys from Colorado State. CSU was a bit of an unknown to the NU coaching staff. Having never seen film on the Rams the coaches did gameday scouting and determined their style to be similar to that of Wisconsin.

Sore bodies and tired legs might’ve held the Huskies back. The Club realized that a victory meant a probable bid to the Bowl bracket, and a loss meant a possible relegation to the Shield bracket. The men from Boston did not disappoint.

From the opening kick-off Northeastern dominated position and controlled the pace of play. Using their experience from the previous day’s matches NU was able to move the ball well and score often. Chris Frazier, named tournament co-captain, stretched his legs impressively as he made a nice run. It set up Alex Goodall who spent all weekend distributing ball and doing the dirty work. Goodall, never selfish, setup Taylor who scored his third try of the day and notched an easy conversion.

The day’s 2nd score was from Tyksinski, who used his gazelle like steps to fool a defender and score under the posts extending the lead to 14-0.

It seemed the match belonged to NU as even a seemingly errant pass – the kind that gives coaches ulcers – from Taylor set up Tyksinski for his 2nd of the match. Up 21-0 the Huskies tried to keep the Rams from scoring, with impressive defensive efforts by Aaron Smith, Frazier, and Franco Liebenberg. Liebenberg, a rookie from South Africa, made a series of tackles that left spectators with their jaws dropped and Rams players feeling battered. A controversial call by the referee gave CSU the front foot and ended NU’s shutout. Fresh legs contributed to keeping the win intact as James Sue & Collin Applegate moved in to keep pace in the backs.

The icing on Friday’s cake was a brilliant show and go and a mad-dash of 70 meters by Goodall to cement the team’s 2nd win of the day and assurance of a Bowl bracket bid. Final score, 28-5 Huskies.

The team was elated, but knew their work was not done yet. Drawing a tough quarterfinal match up against Cal Poly SLO the Huskies were mentally and physically prepared after much needed pool time, sustenance, and relaxation Friday night.

Playing at 10:20 on Saturday there was some concern about fatigue, but the Huskies came out with fire and determination. With sideline support from University developmental officer Brian Denning and an unprecedented number of hits for viewership back in Boston the Huskies knew they were playing for more than themselves – and they showed it against the Mustangs from San Luis Obispo.

Ustas set the tone well with a strong tackle against the big boys from the Pacific coast. Yet another tackle by Taylor, who skippered the club with elan and passion, gave the Club the motivation it needed.

Cal Poly, however, scouted well and maintained possession. With some tough calls by the referee, the Mustangs were able to capitalize and dot the first score of the day to go up 0-5.

As the 2nd half began Northeastern knew they needed possession and continue to make tackles. Sadly, Cal Poly kept up the pressure and physicality and denied possession to the Huskies.

Some tough handling errors and a missed tackle allowed the Mustangs to extend their lead to 12-0. To make things more challenging Cal Poly’s defense was air-tight and the Huskies were unable to punch through and open the game up as they had hoped to. At full time the scoreboard read 0-12 in favor of Cal Poly.

Northeastern’s tournament, and season, had come to a close. It was a disappointing end, but one that demonstrated determination from all Club members. With people cheering at home, a University supporting, and club members showing they are totally committed, the foundation is laid for a hopeful return to Nationals next year.

The day was enjoyable, despite the loss, as the Club watched Cup rugby and spent a night out enjoying Texas’ finest barbeque.

Returning late Sunday night the Huskies felt pleased that they proved doubters wrong. But any sense of satisfaction ended there, as member spoke openingly and positively about returning next year to make it further in the tournament. They spoke about off-season commitments to fitness and strength, and about an exciting and bright future for Northeastern University Men’s Rugby.

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