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USA Club Rugby 15s Nationals: DI Preview

  • 13 May 2024
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NOVA rugby

The USA Club Rugby 15s National Championship weekend is finally here, and actually kicks off on Friday, May 17 before culminating with trophy matches on Sunday, May 19. Games take place at the Round Rock Multipurpose Complex in Texas (2001 North Kenney Fort Blvd.) outside of Austin, and both fields will be live-streamed on The Rugby Network. [lead photo: Kayla Ramsay]

Like last year, the competition runs a Friday-Sunday format — so semifinals on day one, a day’s rest, then final on Sunday. Inexplicably, the semifinals and finals overlap with each other, so viewers must toggle between live-streams if they want to watch the entirety of the DI and DII competitions.

Friday, May 17
DI Semifinals (Times in CDT)
1 p.m. Utah Vipers v Pittsburgh Forge
Field 1 livestream

2 p.m. NOVA v San Diego
Field 2

These two semifinals couldn’t feel more different. The Utah Vipers and Pittsburgh Forge have no means of comparison and have very different builds to nationals. Pittsburgh won the DI Midwest back in November. That title brought with it a direct berth to the national semifinals, so the spring has been a series of competitive friendlies against teams like the Metropolis Valkyries — the 2023 Midwest champ — and Midwest Thunderbirds.

 

 

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The biggest pros to the fall-based season is the runway to fundraise, heal and more easily block off travel dates and logistics on the calendar. The cons include having a slightly different team six months later and rebuilding that momentum into nationals. That said, Pittsburgh has program history at nationals, but 2024 marks the Forge’s first DI nationals showing, and excitement shouldn’t be an issue.

The Utah Vipers also debut at DI national semifinals and emerge from a differently shaped season. Their previous DI competition was a home-and-away situation with the four Colorado and Texas teams, but the  Rocky Mountain and Texas teams separated out this year.

“The last time we played in Texas, we brought 14 players and played two games, so it was really rough for us,” Utah Vipers president and captain Shannon Woolley said. “It was fun playing the Texas teams, but it was such a burden to get everyone out there, and then of course the costs associated with that.”

This season, the Vipers won home-and-away against the Colorado Gray Wolves (the fall fixture was a forfeit win), Denver Black Ice, and added a big win against SoCal’s DI Santa Monica. On May 4, the team beat Texas champion Houston 46-5 in the Frontier final, affording the berth to nationals.

 

 

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“Ever since we joined DI, we’ve always been playoff minded, but especially this year,” Woolley said of a player pool that is a nice mix of veterans and fresh talent. “In January we started with fitness, because that’s always our weakness. Whoever we meet in the championship will be athletic, but fitness will be the thing that pushes us over the top.”

Player to watch? Eta Mailau. Doing damage in the front row, Mailau is a leading try scorer and just a dynamic bulldozer with ball in hand.

“We’re all motivated under this common goal now,” Woolley said. “It’s not just, ‘I love rugby. I want to come play.’ It’s, ‘We want to win nationals.'”

On the other side of the bracket is San Diego Surfers vs. Northern Virginia (NOVA). Why are the 2023 national finalists seeing each other in the semifinals? Because the match-ups were pre-determined by region. In all divisions, the Pacific and Atlantic Super Regional champs play each other, and the Gulf Coast (Frontier) and Northern (Midwest). This setup, however, wasn’t circulated in advance so it came as quite the shock to see the two returners from 2023 facing each other on Friday.

 

 

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So there are some expectations here, and the teams have relatively good intel on one another. San Diego is the reigning national champion and featured many 2023 returners in the Pacific Super Regional Championship against Seattle (36-24 win). There are a couple of notable absences, like Teigan MacDonald and Tia Blythe, but able replacements like Sheree Collins and Kelly Dean have been filling those decision-making roles well.

Of all the national semifinalists, San Diego is the only one that plays an entirely spring schedule. League play (8 games) starts in January, league playoffs (2 games) follow, and then Pacific showdown with Seattle occurred in Las Vegas on May 4. And Seattle wasn’t the only team to check the Surfers. Tempe notched an in-season tie that excited the league. It’s a nice, natural build to nationals, so long as the player pool is deep and plentiful — and it is for San Diego.

Lots of weapons, and favorites include dynamic prop Alexa Scott, ’23 championship MVP Jules Buescher at No. 8, and the devastating Cathy Cai in the centers.

Conversely, NOVA’s made some changes. Nikey Roberts, Brian Muntanga and Johan van Niekerk share coaching responsibilities and have shaken up the team’s game.

“We’re definitely making some big shifts in our system, both in terms of strategically and how we’re using the field, but also language and modernizing how we’re playing,” NOVA president Mo McInerney said. “We’ve been playing at a high level and at nationals for so many years that it’s nice to be given a new picture on our game.”

 

NOVA rugby

NOVA / Photo: Kayla Ramsay

McInerney indicated that approximately half of the team has competed at the past three national championships (2019, 2022, 2023). On-field leadership goes to forwards captain Anna Rae Clark, and long-term Piranha Emily Fulbrook captains the veteran back line from fullback.

The new players aren’t necessarily new to rugby, just NOVA, and bring excellent experience from other clubs and/or high-performing colleges. New hooker Allison Tong and new flyhalf Camille Johnson, for example, both hail from Dartmouth and play a good amount of touch in the D.C. area. Johnson is also a long-time Scion player, where NOVA first-year and impactful loose forward Marissa Hall also plays summer 7s ball.

NOVA dominated the DI East Coast and got the test it was looking for in a friendly win against Beantown during the WPL team’s pre-season. Now it’s time to test the changes with a rematch against San Diego.

“Last year, we were obviously hugely disappointed, but coming from a point of we felt like we didn’t play to our full potential,” McInerney said. “We worked so hard to create opportunities, but we didn’t finish them. The coaches have pushed us in really constructive ways. They’re giving us real stats and feedback, and they’re setting this culture … of not being content with just good things. Making sure you’re living up to your potential.”

The two victorious teams on Friday will advance to the Sunday final at 12 p.m. CDT on field 2. There will not be a 3rd place match. Follow @usaclub.rugby for live updates.

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