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Friday, November 20, 2015

ACRC Preview: Iona vs. Delaware

By Ryan Trost

New Rochelle, NY – As the ACRC Bowl Series continues the matchups keep getting bigger and this midday showdown between the hosting Iona Gaels and reinstated Blue Hens of Delaware promises to be one heck of a show. There are storylines for days in this match, so we will try to keep this preview sharp and not go on too many tangents, but that could be tough. These programs are probably the two most feel-good stories of college rugby’s fall season. Delaware’s triumphant return from program suspension two years early deserves pages unto itself. Iona, pulling off the biggest upset of the college season announced itself as a team to reckon with on the national scene, while simultaneously sending Army’s season into tailspin. The programs themselves deserve a lot of press, but this preview is really about the kids matching up on Saturday. So let’s start there.

Much has been written in recent weeks about Iona’s long term plans under Bruce McLane and his staff. At the heart of their rise in 2015 though, what really personifies the team is the effort of the players. Smaller in stature than just about all of the teams they’ve faced (including the Blue Hens this weekend), this Gaels team has had to work their tails off to compete in a conference loaded with top notch American and foreign born talent. They lost two captains (hooker Andrew Rossi and flanker John D’Allara) to broken bones while fighting their way through the thick Rugby East schedule, and yet have come out of the season ranked inside the D1-A Top 20, with a 7-3 record.

Take the jump to read more.

“This season has been absolutely successful, defined only by the effort the guys have made,” said McLane. “From Halloween on they were holding 5:00 am practices twice a week. All 50 guys worked their asses off and put the time in. So, win or lose, they have been successful.” To say his team is already successful, with the final test yet to play is an interesting way to look at things. It’s a character trait we find in many of the best coaches though. Dominic Wareing at the Northeast Academy brought it to our attention earlier last summer. “It’s about the performance. If that is where it should be, the results will come.”

For McLane, calling the season a success so far is more about the team as a group. As for results, he is looking at it another way. “Good teams play well against other good teams,” he began. “Are we a good team? We know we are, but we don’t prove that to anybody unless we do well against a team like Delaware, at the end of the year.” It’s interesting to watch McLane balance the two sides of his team’s story. On one hand, getting through the Rugby East with a win against one of the big the big four validates a team’s season in its own right, which he appreciates. He holds no illusions about his team’s chances against Delaware though. This Blue Hens team has also been very good in their first year back and the individual matchups do have McLane worried.

When we look at the Iona roster, we see that it is mostly a pretty experienced crew, with seven upperclassmen, six sophomores and two freshmen in the starting XV. Delaware is, of course largely made up of newer team members, after having lost a number of veterans to graduation during their time off. The Iona coach is quick to point out that those leaders who are back on the Delaware team though weren’t just sitting around during the suspension. “They’ve been playing men’s rugby while away, so they are a lot more savvy and tough than they were. This is not a matchup you look at and think, ‘oh yeah I want this team.’ It’s going to be a tough physical battle.”

He is right. Speaking to Delaware coach, Struan Murray, a Dumfries and Galloway Scot with a rustling poecy in his accent, the message is repeated often. “We try to be as aggressive as we can be. We like a fast pace. We’re not going to be passive.” When Murray expanded on why this match in particular demands his team be at flying pace he broke it down to scouting. “They’re a front foot team who will bring the game to us. They’re apt to control the ball and put they’re personality on the game,” he said. “The best way to combat a team who is built that way is to do the same thing, but our way.”

Murray’s starting Fullback and Captain, Chris Mattina helped clarify what “our way” has meant to the Blue Hens since Murray took the reins. “The coaching culture has changed. There’s more structure now, especially on the field,” he said. The former U-20 Eagles and current All-American prospect went on to support the assertions, but also added that the team has gotten to the point where they can now incorporate a lot more movement than in the recent past. “It’s been a process, but it’s tying together well. A lot of guys have stepped up in really big ways,” he said.

That movement is something that Iona’s scouting report didn’t seem to cover in our interviews, so this facet of Delaware’s game should be one to pay attention to. “They have speed out wide, but they haven’t really exploited that,” said McLane. With the individual matchups McLane looks at he absolutely thinks this will become a power game and that the team who wins the hitting battle, the team that reacts better to the high intensity and pressure of an 80 minute “pound battle” should get the better result.

“If either team tries to move it wide, they will have to penetrate first,” he said. “We can both do well in that, but we’ll have to be careful in channels getting it there to not get whacked.” The center channels are indeed an area targeted by both coaches as a key for this match. “Their 9 and 10 have been very effective at controlling games and allowing their centers to be aggressive, so we have to be very smart about how we handle the game in the middle of the pitch,” said Murray.

Both coaches are encouraging their defensive units to front up and deny the other team momentum in the contact area. When they have an opportunity for turnover ball, watch for Delaware to quickly apply their counter attack, as they do not want to allow Iona to settle in defensively. “We’re probably a better defensive team than them, BUT they play defense exactly the way I don’t want to face,” said McLane. “We either find a way to deal with that pressure and win that physical battle or it’s going to be a long-tight battle.”

This is where the pre-game analysis starts to get fun. Both coaches are keen on the same area of play, both are claiming to be underdogs due to the other team’s physical nature and both are asking their kids to harness that pressure, take on the challenge and make the better decisions. “They have big players who are experienced enough to give us a lot of trouble. The only way to overcome it is precision and accuracy, and keeping composure in physical battles,” said McLane.

One of McLane’s go-to pep talks over the years summarizes his point about composure very well. “It’s not what happens to you that matters, it’s how well you react to what happens that matters. The team that can react well to the mistakes, and create order out of chaos generally will win the day.”

Murray’s taken a different tact in getting his men to react in a way that suits them best. “Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Take risks at the right times. Be smart. Realize IC has beaten teams that we have not. We will be underdogs, but there is a lot of freedom in that. It’s just another game of rugby so go out and express yourself. Push the pace. We’re 18 and 19 years old, so let’s go be as aggressive as we can and have fun.”

Aggressive fun. Is there anything better on the rugby pitch for the final two hours of your season?
With both teams looking to prove that they are ready to take another step up the D1-A rankings I expect this one to get very good.

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