Friday, August 12, 2016

Club 7s National Title Chase, Northeast Previews

Ryan J. Trost

USA Rugby’s Club 7’s National Championships kick off Saturday in Denver, CO. Straight off the heels of some inspiring Olympic rugby, this year’s summer finale offers fans (new and old) a chance to get up to speed with the current the domestic 7s scene. Each of the 16 teams on hand qualified for their tournament through a series of regional 7s events. The top two teams at the end of each region’s series are in. This year the field is pretty diverse, but there are some safe bets.

For fans in the northeast, the teams to watch this weekend are the 3rd and 5th overall seeds, Old Blue of NY and Mystic River Rugby Club (respectively).

Having qualified through the increasingly tough Northeast 7s Series, both teams are expected to make it into the quarterfinals on Day 2.

Take the jump to read more.
The Northeast Series included four qualifying events this year. While Mystic and Old Blue both reached Nationals for the 2nd year in a row, the region’s competition is tightening. The New York Athletic Club (NYAC), who is also a well-established powerhouse won the final leg of the series and ended the year tied with Mystic on qualification points. Tie breaks were in Mystic’s favor.

In depth previews of both Northeast representatives in the Sweet 16 can be found below.

Locally known as the Monsters of Malden, Mass, Mystic River is the reigning USA Division 1 Club 15s National Champion (D1). Their 7s team is coached by the same man who helmed that title run, Josh Smith. Smith has been guiding the Mystics since 2014, when they merged with his former home club, the Middlesex Barbarians. Last year, the team took 3rd at Nationals. Combine that success with this year’s D1 title and local fans are hopeful for the rare, but possible dual championship in 2016.

It would be a hell of a feat, to be certain. As Smith says, “There are no easy games on Day 2. If you can make that far, you know you’re in for a dogfight.”

Mystic is in Pool D on the first day of competition where they will face the 4th overall seed, Chicago Lions RFC. Coached by former US national team player David Fee, the Lions have a long history of success in American rugby. Most will tab Chicago and Mystic as the teams to beat in the pool, which makes sense. As the #4 and #5 seeds, their clash at the end of the afternoon, Saturday should be an excellent match-up, if the selectors were right.

As we said, every team at Nationals had to earn their spot though, and Smith is quick to limit any over-confidence. “Honestly, Old White scares me,” he said. “I just don’t know enough about them this year, yet.” Santa Monica has received a bit more press and their #13 seed could be a bit deceiving as they did split their qualification contests with the Pacific South’s #1 team, Belmont Shore.

Smith also knows that while Mystic is certainly a contender, their path to the finals was not at all a runaway. After a prolonged spring playoff season, the shift to 7 a-side rugby saw Mystic struggle early. The first northeast qualifying tournament of Summer 7s was held in Monmouth, NJ on June 18th. Their 15s National Championship game was played only eleven days prior. So, on the front end of the summer series, Mystic had very little time to prepare.

In an interesting twist of synchronicity though, the scheduling of Northeast Qualifying and National Championship tournaments this year was built with some consideration for Olympic interests. The final northeast event occurred on July 16th at Saratoga 7s. That extra month at the end of the season has allowed Mystic a chance to get fully healthy and to tweak their tactics.

“We didn’t really have time for pre-season work on the skills transition,” Said Smith. Explaining the summer’s journey as a backwards trek when compared to a normal build up, he continued, “We chose to concentrate more on grit and defensive contact early… then shifted to core skills and cleaning things up in the past month.”

His assessment of the strategy is currently positive. “I like it. This month has allowed us to prepare for Nationals more like we would in a pre-season camp. We’re looking to be more imaginative in attack than teams have seen this year.”

An important tool in opening up that offensive platform is their finalized halfback pairing of Ian Luciano and Alatasi Tupou. Luciano is a kiwi born 2x U.S. College 7s All-American. He is young, with sharp eyes and a deadly first step. His reads work beautifully in concert with Tupou’s flair. A former Samoan national 7s team star, Tupou was an absolute demon during the 15s National Championship match. Together they are the kind of mates who can make “something out of nothing” look easy.

Making things look easy, isn’t always Smith’s M.O. He’s a coach who relishes the underdog role. Coming in as the Northeast’s #2 seed may allow him to make one last pre-match speech as such, but it’s doubtful anyone else would buy it. Considering Mystic’s fortunes over the past 12 months, that’s just not what they are anymore.

To the contrary in fact, they are now a pretty well known quantity. Loaded Northeast Academy and US talent pool athletes, they won’t sneak up on anyone this year. The Wildly physical trio of Sean Rafferty, Jon Kokinda and Steve Dazzo bring determination and panache to every breakdown. The team’s starting flyers Jared Collinson and Chris Frazier are also smart Mystic veterans who can score from any corner of the pitch. They have a lot of pieces, and they have continuity.

Indeed, the boys from north of Boston should advance into the quarterfinals. Once there, they will face one of the top two teams from Pool C and we already know… “There are no easy games on Day 2. If you can make it that far...”

In contrast to Mystic’s plight to restart the engines, Old Blue 7s (OBNY) came out firing on all cylinders this summer. A perennial contender in the National hunt, OBNY ran off dominant performances to win the first two northeast qualifiers. How dominant? At Newport, Old Blue outscored their opponents by a score of 152 – 41. Those first two tourneys proved enough to take the Northeast Series in the end, after Mystic and NYAC closed the gap to split the final two tournament crowns between them.

With their region’s #1 spot locked up, 2016 becomes the 14th appearance for Old Blue at Nationals. They have taken the grand trophy home twice. Their most recent title came over a decade ago however, in 2005. With a long drought between then and now, Coach Dominic Wareing is using that fact as one of several motivating factors to keep his athletes on task.

It’s good thing too. Despite their well-deserved #3 overall seed and their status as 7s elites, Old Blue find themselves in what could be considered a group of death in Pool C. Olympic Rugby Club and 1823 are sneaky #2 regional qualifiers. Hailing from two very tough conferences, these 11th and 14th overall seeds could probably win a number of other regions outright.

Schuykill River is another more predictably dangerous #6 overall seed who are making their 6th consecutive appearance at Nationals. Simply put, there are no easy matches for Old Blue this year. Not on Day 1, and certainly not on Day 2.

As Wareing points out though, it’s not about what other teams are capable of. For Old Blue, it’s really about meeting their own standards, in order to reach their goals. This NYC club has gobs of talent and the skill to choose from. They fielded two squads at every qualifier this summer and final roster spots for the big one were only decided days ago. Several of the gents have made multiple US National team assemblies. Some (James Bird and Harry Higgins) have received Eagle caps. Others, like Derek Lipscomb and Rick Kirkland, are only a few tantalizing steps removed.

Old Blue is also a 15s title holder in their own right, through the American Rugby Premiership (ARP). The ARP is widely considered a more densely talented competition than D1, but Old Blue competes in both divisions. After having wrested the ARP crown from the talons of Life U in May, Old Blue was a considered a heavy favorite in the D1 National Title race. That race was won in the end though, by Mystic.

Clearly Old Blue have the talent and the acumen to go far. When they play with focus and keep their foot on the pedal, they are an excellent team. One can see the cracks in the armor though, as a series of near misses has occurred in the team’s recent past.

Ever the coaching guru, Wareing has spun those interlocking tales into the team’s preparations for the final. “It’s something that hasn’t been achieved in any of their careers,” he says. “The National Championship… This is our Gold Medal.”

The turn of phrase dangles like a carrot for his men, who have tasted both thrill and agony as a team and as individuals throughout the past 6-12 months.

With task-oriented motivations set, Old Blue’s final month has been charged with intensity and challenge. Nightly sessions in the “Bull Ring” have driven the boys in blue to hopefully be the fittest team at Nationals.

Outside of the Bull Ring, Wareing has run his squad through a series of full-out scrimmages with the Northeast Academy team who train alongside them throughout the summer. The Northeast Academy is one of the more successful USA Rugby National Development Academy’s and is closely tied to the fortunes of many of the northeast region’s USA Eagle representatives.

For players, the motivations are understood. “We had one of our most successful 15s seasons in years,” said Captain, Alex Schwarz. “(The) narrow loss to Mystic in the National Semifinals shattered the guys…. We had to move on from happened in Pittsburgh though and focus on the next job.” That next job was to win the Northeast 7s and qualify for Nationals, which they did, convincingly… at first.

And there’s that theme again. Off the bat, OBNY had done enough to hold their #1 position, but they were not as convincing in those final two weeks of qualifiers. Is that because they took their foot off the gas, or because other teams got better? It’s hard to say. The answer is probably a combination thereof.

We have seen what Old Blue can do when focused (ARP title, dominant performances, interest from national team scouts…), but we have also seen them fall off after attaining only a portion of their overall goal.

We know they are highly talented. Bird, Higgins, Kirkland, Lipscomb and Schwarz lead a group that boasts rising young play makers as well. Sean McGarrity can make defenders miss in a phone booth. Connor Wallace-Sims is a former U20 National teamer who is coming on in leaps and bounds in his 2nd year on the senior circuit.

So, while the team is an understandable favorite to challenge Seattle’s 3 year reign, the question remains. Which Old Blue will we see this weekend?

Will they put the hammer down and finish, or won’t they?

If Old Blue play to their standards for the entire weekend there is no reason they can’t make 2016 their year. This is Nationals though. Everyone is here to perform. To win, there can be no let up.

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