Playoff teams from across the east coast flew into Greenville-Spartanburg airport with national championship dreams heavy on their mind. Heavy on their backs would be sweat-soaked jerseys.
With the USA Rugby club playoff structure calling for two matches per team on the weekend, escaping the South Carolina humidity was just as unlikely as any of the eastern champions flying out unscathed.
No surprise, the southernmost clubs performed best in the muggy conditions.
Women’s D1: NOVA
Northern Virginia made easy work of Metropolis on day one with a 44-10 thumping. An early lead on the first day of the competition proved advantageous to the teams that could pull it off. NOVA was able to run out several substitute players and sit their starters in the shade.
On Sunday, they had to face their conference foe, Raleigh. Don’t forget, Raleigh went all the way to the national final last season.
NOVA wasn’t worried. They had faced Raleigh three times already this season with NOVA holding the 2-1 head-to-head. NOVA again took care of Raleigh 56-21.
The most exciting aspect of the national playoffs is getting the chance to play unfamiliar teams. While Raleigh may feel a bit let down about traveling all the way to South Carolina just to play NOVA, the fact that two teams from one conference reached the final four is a testament to the strength of the Mid-Atlantic conference.
After Day 2 of the East and West Championships, the National Championship matchups are set. With the form these teams are in the National Championships can’t come soon enough! pic.twitter.com/SKuut7y7co— USA Club Rugby (@usaclubrugby) May 19, 2019
NOVA will face the Austin Valkyries, who didn’t have to travel at all for the Regional playoff. There will be no home crowd for the Valkyries in Obetz, Ohio and NOVA will be the favorite.
Women’s D2: Harrisburg
Harrisburg is headed to the National final to face the Sacramento Amazons. The player of the weekend was Harrisburg outside center Rebecca Lengle, an amazon in her own right.
Not often do you get to see a player with such pace and power. Lengle made nationals teams look like they were playing in slow-motion. If Sacramento has any chance at hoisting the National Championship trophy they will have to form some gameplan that can stop Rebecca Lengle.
Men’s D1: Life
Only a two-hour drive from their home pitch in Marietta, Life’s graduate team felt right at home in the southern climate. The undergraduate national champion team came out to support their graduate squad in their quest for national glory and the cheers certainly boosted the Running Eagles’ momentum.
Life ran out a star-studded backline with the likes of Sam Cowley, Zander Van Schalkwyk, and Austin White. The combination proved too much for the Lions early in the match, as they executed a 4 v 3 to put White in for a try.
Up 28-0 it looked like things were about to get ugly until Brian Rooney struck back.
A clever offload from Chicago’s outside center Jack Casey put Brian Rooney one on one with the Falcons 7s stud Austin White. Rooney, the clever veteran, took a hard inside cut then took White around the edge for a 60-meter try.
The Lions got all the momentum they needed. Their forwards chested up and hammered away at Life. Chicago native Jeffrey Steele pounded the Life defense over and over clearing the way for captain Andy Rose to score two tries. With 20 minutes remaining, Chicago’s scrumhalf Joe Van Zyl took a snipe from the base of the ruck all the way to the line to put the Lions just nine points down. It seemed the entire momentum of the match had flipped, but the try was then disallowed as the assistant referee cited Van Zyl for regaining his feet after being tackled and held.
Frustrations boiled over and both teams lost their cool a few times in the remaining minutes of the match. The final score ended 28-19 as Life was held scoreless in the second half.
Fresh off their win in the Men's Division I Eastern Championship, and advancing to the National Championship, hear from @MLifeRugby's head coach Blake Bradford about the performance. pic.twitter.com/AwR2orcUoM— USA Club Rugby (@usaclubrugby) May 18, 201
Life has plenty of talent to win the national title, but they will not be able to take their foot off the gas if they are going to beat the Western Champs Austin Blacks.
Life took their celebration down to Georgia where several graduate and undergraduate players signed professional contracts with the newest MLR franchise, RugbyATL.
Men’s D2: Atlanta Old White
Who doesn’t love parity?
The D2 matches this weekend were the most exciting of the lot this weekend because the teams were so evenly matched. Atlanta Old White fans certainly traveled the best of any clubs represented this weekend and their playoff squad made the trip worthwhile.
Cleveland had several massive players on their squad, which made for some rumbling carries and big tackles. Cleveland even scored a long streaking try, but Old White’s methodical attack was too much for team’s to defend for 80 minutes.
Scrumhalf Connor Fenton worked phase after phase until Cleveland would give up a penalty. Then flyhalf Lucas Baistrocchi would slot penalty goals or pin Cleveland inside their 22-meter line. Atlanta wore down the Crusaders and moved on to the Eastern final with a 28-14 win.
On Sunday, Old White had an 80-minute heavyweight fight with Doylestown. Back and forth the team’s traded collisions and penalties. Both teams put their bodies on the line forcing several players into exhaustion. Long series of phase play saw players collapse, only to regain their feet for the next set piece.
With two minutes left Doylestown scored what they thought would be the try that secured the match. Doylestown players rejoiced and Old White slumped to their knees, but the referee announced there was still more time. Old White rallied under the posts knowing one mistake would be the end of the season for the crowd favorite.
They inched, scratched, clawed to the try line and under a pile of bodies the referee surfaced awarding an Old White try. Players and fans on both teams exploded into a frenzy and the Atlanta squad snuck out as Eastern Champs.
Two lead changes in the last two minutes sees @atlantarugby hold on to advance to the Men’s Division II National Championship! Hear from coach Francesco Balsas on what this means. pic.twitter.com/DlPigfFT7Q— USA Club Rugby (@usaclubrugby) May 19, 2019
Old White will face the Olympic Club in another heavyweight fight in the D2 final.
Men’s D3: Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids is the D3 Eastern champ and don’t be put off by the D3 part, they would beat a lot of strong D2 teams. On Saturday, the Gazelles fought off a Savannah squad that is accustomed to the heat.
Casey Moag is a stout flyhalf for Grand Rapids and he recognized Savannah’s weakness early in the match. He found Savannah to be slow around the fringes so continually took the ball hard to the line before dishing it to a prop. Moag’s size allowed him to handle the damage of running at the teeth of the defense, and his nifty pop pass created several line breaks that broke Savannah.
On Sunday, the Gazelles came out with a similar gameplan. Moag’s move was less effective on North East Philadelphia, who had clearly done their homework. This is where Dominick Lamancusa stepped in. Dominick Lamancusa does not look or play like a D3 inside center. His skill with ball in hand and from the boot was evident after scoring one of the tries of the weekend in which he chased down his own kick for a try.
Grand Rapids is not your typical D3 team, but neither are the Austin Blacks. It’s going to take more than Moag and Lamancusa to defeat the D3 reigning champs.