The quality of play in North America is reaching new heights, and it's no wonder why. Just watching the younger generations of talent go at it, as the under-16s did this weekend, fans can see that players now are developing skillsets much earlier than players of the past.
This is not meant to be a slight on the older generation of ruggers; it's rather a testament to the benefits of staging more and more big tournaments for the youth to attend, like the NAI's this weekend. From the beginning of day 1 to the end of day 2, there was so much impressive play from the 16 year olds that it's hard not to be excited about the trajectory of North American rugby.
In the end, nine teams were crowned champions on the day, and here's how the 16 year olds did it:
Atlantis was by no means one of the bigger teams on the weekend, but they didn't let that affect them. They used great ball movement, teamwork, and foot speed to out-duel their opponents all tournament long.
The girls started the tournament off by outlasting Rhino Rugby in a back and forth game, 19-17. After that, it was a comfortable 38-7 win over the Celtic Barbarians, followed by a tough 17-5 win over a very good Maui Warriors side.
Onto the quarters and, after the teams were re-seeded, Atlantis once again saw the Celtic Barbarians. They made quick work of the Barbarians, jumping out to 26-0 halftime lead before conceding two garbage-time tries to win 32-12.
In the semis, it was another rematch as they ran into Rhino once again. This time Atlantis made sure not to let the Rhinos hang around, and smashed them 29-7 to advance to the final. In the championship they would play in yet another rematch, this time with their toughest opponent, the Maui Warriors.
This game proved to be one of the most exciting of the whole weekend. The two sides traded try after try, with a hat trick from Tiahna Padilla paving the way for Atlantis. This had the score knotted up at 17 with under a minute remaining.
The Warriors looked to have gone over for the game winner, but as the Maui player crossed over the tryline, a host of Atlantis players held her up and stripped the ball away on the goal line. After a few phases and little ground made, Atlantis spun the ball wide, under the shadow of their own goalposts. The Warriors were all over it, but a high tackle and a yellow card let Atlantis off the hook.
Time was now up on the clock, and with the ball at their own 5-meter line, some might have expected Atlantis to just tap the ball and kick it out for overtime. But why do that when you've got a speedster like Talosia "Taka" Morrissette on your team?
Atlantis chose to quick tap and immediately ship the ball wide to Taka. She skirted around the first defender, and was off to the races up the left touchline. Nobody was even close to catching her, and she dotted down right underneath the sticks to give her team the championship.
Just as they carried their team in the final, Taka and Tiahna were superb all weekend. The two playmakers still have some time left before they finish high school, but at the moment say they fancy playing their collegiate rugby at BYU and Dartmouth respectively.
Winner: Canadian Misfits
"Square peg in a round hole" was the Misfits' motto all weekend. In the end, the Canadians were indeed able to jam that square peg into that round hole. And it didn't come easy.
To open the tournament, they dropped a competitive game to Atlantis, 26-17. The Misfits rarely lose pool play games, and this seemed to be somewhat of a wake-up call for them. They responded by handling Belmont Shore 24-7 and Gorilla Rugby 21-5.
Onto the knockout rounds, where the sledding only got tougher.
In their quarterfinal matchup, the Misfits faced off against Rhino Rugby. Rhino had a number of extremely talented players, and it took a real team effort for the Canadians to pull it out. Down 22-5, they rallied for a 24-22 win to move on to the cup semis for a rematch with Atlantis.
With revenge on their minds, the Misfits put together a stellar performance. Atlantis had breezed through their quarterfinal 38-0, and were on fire all tournament long. However, the Misfits did enough to withstand a late Atlantis rally to hold on 19-17.
In the final, it was one-way traffic. The Misfits put together their best performance of the day en route to a massive 31-12 win over the Rocky Mountain Rebels.
Prince Ndukewe was phenomenal all weekend long as a try-scoring machine. His pace and power is immense for a teenager, and if he can stay healthy moving forward there's no reason to believe he can't be a Canadian representative player one day.