Thursday, November 19, 2015

ACRC Preview: Syracuse vs. Notre Dame College

By Ryan Trost

In the second game of the Series viewers will be treated to a tasty Division 1-AA contest between the Syracuse University Hammerheads and the Falcons of Notre Dame College. This is a very interesting match, if you’ve been paying attention this year. While the ‘cuse is coming in red hot, after a season defining and conference crowning victory two weeks ago, Notre Dame seems to have been on an almost opposite trajectory. The Falcons started the year with a series of blowout wins against D1-A opponents, but have taken three losses in their past four games. A tale of opposites, the more we break these teams down, the more intriguing their matchup becomes.

First, let’s look at the team histories. Notre Dame College is another of that new breed of college programs. Like AIC, Wheeling Jesuit or Lindenwood they have developed a clear strategy for growth and have attacked the landscape with acuity. Rapidly rising through the ranks, the NDC program didn’t even exist before the fall of 2012. A private liberal arts school with student body of around 2,000, it is known mostly for its nursing and education programs. At about the same time as the school made a conscious effort to build its athletic program though, the USA Rugby CRC’s were being telecast on NBC. Enter, former head coach Brian McCue and current head coach (former 7’s HC and assistant to the 15’s program) Jason Fox, who met with then President of the college, Andrew P. Roth. This year, Fox will be graduating his first home grown rugby alums from the program.

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Syracuse on the other hand, is one of the originals on the east coast. With a student body of 20,000 the university attracts a much different kind of athlete than Notre Dame. Founded in 1969, the Hammerheads’ club history has seen its share of ups and downs. There are many 1st place conference finishes, as well as last… with many 3rd and 4th place years in there as well. Coach Bob Wilson, himself a founding player member of the team, has taken a more methodical approach to the team’s growth rate in recent years. With decades of club rugby structure behind them, the Hammerheads know well the perils of moving up and down in divisions. That methodical sort of approach is also bringing the team success on the field, which highlights a vibrant contrast between the teams.

Traditionally, Wilson has had the Hammerheads playing a forward dominated game, with solid steering in the first and second receivers. Syracuse runs a tempo that is choreographed by its kicking and its defense. This is systematically contrary to the approach Fox is taking at NDC. When I asked the former Atlantis and Eagles 7’s coach about his young team’s defining style, he was forthright. “Wide open play.” He said, “We have real good 7s guys, a lot of guys who can run. It’s an open style, fast paced… they’re real good athletes.”

So, what this looks like is a classic stylistic battle. One team is keen to assert controlled territorial tactics, the other is eager to run and stretch the field. Clarence Picard, Commissioner of D1-A’s Rugby East Conference, is well acquainted with both coaches and both teams. A former coaching peer of Syracuse assistant David DeSalvia at NY All-Stars, he was also coached by Fox as a high school player back in the day. “Both teams have a strong forward pack. Syracuse traditionally likes to kick deep and grind it out.” He continued, “Notre Dame can score 80 yard tries from anywhere, anytime though, so it’s going to be really fun to watch.”

Bob Wilson concurred. “In my opinion the game Friday will be decided by the strength or weakness of our defensive structure,” he said. “If we can maintain connection and line speed to move the tackle line back and get on the front foot and control the NDC power, then it should be a competitive contest”. The leadership of that task is largely going to fall on the shoulders of the hammerheads’ linkage between back rowers Jake Smith (So.) and team captain, Angus Bishop (Jr.) in concert with their vaunted Fly-Half, Alex Hodgkinson.

Offensively, the hammerheads will be looking for timely exploitation of space. It is no secret that Hodgkinson is an enormous asset to the team and will be steering the offense to the channels he sees. A former London Wasps Academy member, he provides a level of tactical experience that is crucial to the team’s success. He is a very likely candidate for All-American honors at the end of the spring season. The wave of press that Hodgkinson is getting recently should not take anything away from the rest of this Hammerheads team though. They are a deceptively experienced crew in other areas of the pitch as well.

Dual French/U.S. citizen Jack Faure played high school rugby at the French Academy of NYC.
Freshman Inside Center, Dallas Haskins hails from Hong Kong, where he was selected as a representative of the team’s U-13, U-15, U-16, U-18 and U-19 Hong Kong Sevens teams. Yet another freshman starter on the team, Andrew Burdsall is a big fast lock from the well-established St. Joe’s Prep in Philadelphia.

Honestly, both teams are quite dangerous and good at what they do. Those losses that NDC has taken recently are against some very-very good competition. On the year, Notre Dame is 2-2 against D1-A teams and 4-1 against AA teams. Their only AA loss came last weekend to Navy, who some would say are as good as any single A team across the nation. Being consistently tested by teams that are at the top of US college rugby is a great means of improving one’s own rugby abilities. If we consider the lessons learned in facing programs like Davenport and how that raw talent marking the team is led by a group of savvy and adept flyers, NDC may not be coming into this wobbly at all.

The heart and soul of the team resides in the #4 jersey, with Captain Spencer Duncan (Jr.). From Johannesburg, South Africa he brings a high revving engine for the full 80 minutes and sets that physical, dynamic tone the team is known for. Cullen Barelka (So.) at #8 is an athlete Fox is sure should be getting looks from the U-20 national selectors. Corey Graham (So.) at #10 is an interesting match-up opposite Hodgkinson. He is a very quick athlete. The Falcons will absolutely rely on him and their back row to put pressure on Hodgkinson.

That brings us to perhaps the most important player on Notre Dame’s side Friday night. Marcus Tupuola (Jr.) is the Falcons’ #15 who viewers will undoubtedly be seeing a lot of in this match. He was invited to the USA U-20’s camp earlier this fall and was only unable to attend due to school responsibilities. Given Syracuse’s game plan, and Hodgkinson’s proficiency in the tactical kicking arena, Tupuola’s ability to anchor the back three and counter is going to be of major importance to the Falcons chances.

The weather on Friday night should be clear and only slightly breezy, so there should be opportunities for some long kicks and open lanes. How the Falcons set their platform in transition will be pivotal. Running wildly away from support in favor of that one daring chance, will only play into the Hammerheads’ plans.

Rolling in at 7-2 on a four game win streak, having just outworked their primary conference rival at Stony Brook for the conference win, Syracuse is riding a nice wave of momentum. They are playing smart, tactical, grinding rugby. Their Fly-Half is among the best all-around #10’s in D1-AA. Still, while their competition in the Empire Conference is certainly a tough, it’s another matter to test your limits in the division above, as often as Notre Dame has. Make no mistake, NDC is a program with a plan. In three short years they have risen from non-existence, to Division 3 national title contention (last year), to being very competitive against D1-A competition this fall. It is a young program, but it is an ambitious and active one at the same time.

Most odds makers seem to favor Syracuse and their volume of experience, combined with smart controlled, strong forward game planning. Notre Dame is a spirited team with nothing to lose though and could be looking at a perfect trap scenario. Their record looks a little off coming in, but by measures of talent, and with very solid coaching, they aren’t as vulnerable as you might expect.

Look for this to be a very fun match to watch with waves of momentum carrying both teams. I expect Syracuse to dominate certain phases of play, especially after the initial 20 minutes, when adrenaline and nerves have settled. Notre Dame will attack early and often… and they are known for some spirited comebacks. Experience should win out in the end, but as we all know, nothing is set in stone until after the final whistle blows.

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