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The U18 age group featured the most teams in Salt Lake City, and the quality was there to match the quantity.
United Rugby and Rhino Rugby took home the girls and the boys NAI 7s U-18 championships. Here's how they did it:
Winner: United Rugby
In what turned out to be another thrilling final at the NAI 7s, United Rugby overcame a 14-0 halftime deficit against Aztec Rugby to win on the final play of the game, 19-14.
Both teams took tough roads to the final. The two finalists were grouped into a pool together during group stage, where they also faced off with another powerful opponent, ARPTC.
It was the Aztecs who performed best during pool play, scoring 88 points and only conceding 14 through their three undefeated games. United played them close, but fell 17-7 and thus the two teams entered the quarterfinals as the #1 and #6 seeds.
The Aztecs met ARPTC again in the quarterfinals and, after beating them 33-0 the day before, it appeared they would coast into the semifinal. However, a different ARPTC team showed up on Day 2 and gave them a real scare. The Aztecs fell behind 12-0, before finally tying it up and sending the game to overtime.
There they suffocated ARPTC with high pressure defense, and ultimately won a turnover just outside the 22. Some quick hands got the ball wide to the winger, and she stepped inside one defender and broke a tackle to sprint into the in-goal for the game-winner.
In United's quarterfinal, the girls exploded in the second half, scoring three converted tries to erase a 15-point lead against Toa Rugby. The comeback was completed with a diving effort underneath the sticks as time expired to give United the 28-22 victory and a place in the semis.
The semifinals were less dramatic, as both teams won comfortably; Aztec took down the Rocky Mountain Rebels 22-14, while United pasted Coastal Rugby 29-7. This set up a rematch in the championship, and United had revenge on their minds.
In the final, it was the Aztecs who got off to the quick start. They jumped out to a 14-0 halftime advantage, before United orchestrated another major comeback. Two long range tries tied the scores up at 14, and with less than a minute to play the game was very much in the balance.
Aztecs had possession and were making ground, but a poach at midfield by United gave them the ball back with 30 seconds to play. A few phases later the ball was shipped out wide, and the winger put in a superb in-and-out move and outpaced her opposite to get around the edge and score. Time was up, and United Rugby won the NAI 7's U-18 championship, their third straight title.
Winner: Rhino Rugby Academy
On the boys side, there was an equal amount of drama. Rhino pulled out a wild victory against Belmont Shore to claim the cup.
Both teams cruised through pool play undefeated, before outlasting some tough competition in the quarters and semis. The Rhinos gutted out a 24-21 win over the Celtic Barbarians in the quarters and then took down Action Rugby 28-12 in the semis. Belmont crushed NorCal 33-0 in the quarters, but then won a dog fight over Toa in the semis, 21-19.
This pitted the two SoCal teams against each other in the final, and it proved to be an extremely back and forth affair. Rhino used it's athletic ball carriers to manufacture tries with steps, fends, and offloads, and Belmont used a cohesive passing attack to spring the ball into space and utilize its speed.
Down 19-12, Rhino scored on a 60 meter effort to bring the score to 19-17. The conversion was missed, and so they would need to get the ball back or the game would be lost.
With a 19-17 lead under a minute to go, Belmont Shore made a long break down the right sideline. At this stage, a try and conversion surely would have iced the game, but Rhino dug deep and tracked the player down just inside the 22. Players now were totally gassed, and some had a hard time getting back to their feet.
The ball was swung back into the middle of the field, and the Rhinos were able to gang tackle the ball carrier and take him to ground. Thinking quickly, two Rhino players counter rucked at the breakdown, and the ball came back to their side.
They sent the ball wide to the winger, who collected the errant pass off the deck, broke a tackle, and turned on the jets to race up the right sideline.
He had one man to beat, and backed his speed to gas the last defender and go in for the match-winning score. Bodies from both sides were strewn across the pitch; the heart and effort of both teams was mighty and it was a shame that one of them had to lose.
But as it was, the Rhinos had that little bit extra in the tank to seal the deal and take home the cup.