Thursday, September 22, 2016

Rugby East Drop On: Wheeling and Iona at Penn State

by Ryan J. Trost
This is American Rugby – Rugby East

Heading for the neutral grounds of Happy Valley, PA, Iona and Wheeling will clash in what should be Rugby East’s most competitive and meaningful match of the week. Credit the schedule makers for timing this one almost perfectly.

Both teams, seated just outside the D1A Top-20 for the first two weeks, have shown increasingly capable form since the season began. The newest rankings now have Wheeling back at #20, while Iona maintains a spot by the window, despite having played the 7th ranked Army Black Knights very close in the season opener.

Wheeling’s reentry into the Top-20 checks the first box in Coach Tommy Duffy’s goals list this year. Though he admits to the feeling of “14 stallions” dancing in his gut prior to his D1A opener against St. Bonaventure, his level headedness throughout the transition period has allowed his players to focus on playing Cardinal Ball.

In Duffy’s words, the Wheeling pack was flawless last week, winning 100% of their own put-ins and throws, while also stealing four scrums and five lineouts. The final score of 60-15 indicates a well-controlled ball game, which Duffy confirms.

Take the jump to read more.

For the 2nd week in a row he lauded the playmaking of Fly-half, Allan Hanson. “(He) was able to see where an overload would be and able to call it out and get it there.” Along with Hanson, Duffy gives special praise to his Scrum-half Zach Stramanak, who he said controlled the pace of the game greatly, getting the ball quickly to Hanson, while commanding the forwards very well. That halfback combination, along with Peter Malcolm and the cool leadership of Hugh McAllister kept the Bonnies on their heels.

Duffy isn’t letting the Cardinals get ahead of themselves though. “Every week is a progression… tweaking and adjusting as needed,” he said. This week in particular, Duffy would like to see more movement between the 13 and Wing.

Defensively he wants to sure up the channels around the rucks, applying more pressure for the full 80 against an Iona team that is well known for applying pressure in their own right. “I like how we match-up in physicality, but it’s going to be a hard fought game,” Duffy said. “Iona’s going to be a test. Probably the best we’ve seen,” he continued. “They’re going to push us.”

Indeed, the Gaels have become the conference dark horse over the course of three seasons. It’s true that Iona has yet to ever beat the Cardinals, but they did cut the scoring differential with Wheeling down from 50 in their first meeting to 20 points last year.  They have closed the scoring gap on all of the top four teams in the conference every time they’ve played in fact. Part and parcel to that constant improvement, Iona is known for being terribly tough to play against.

This Wheeling team is a bit different than the ones Iona has faced so far this year though. Where Army, for instance is certainly big, fit, talented and able, many of the Cardinals players are perhaps a bit…  rougher around the edges. “Wheeling is very happy to stand toe to toe and say, ‘Let’s go’, ya Mother…” said McLane. “They’re happy to tackle, hit and ruck all day, so if we’re going to do that, we understand what that entails.”

McLane is not saying this is a Broad Street Bullies vs Big Bad Bruins via 1976 sort of deal. He is saying though, that the kind of go for the kill mentality his team instinctively runs on could come back to haunt them. “It’s one thing to be tackled. It’s another to get wiped out. We’ve put ourselves in situations to allow that to happen to us six to ten times per game so far,” said McLane. “You can’t expect to do that and win against Wheeling. Those are momentum changers for top teams.”

To remedy such issues, McLane wants to create more opportunities for his backs to receive the ball in space so they can show off some of their footwork and skill. Could this be a coming out party for the Iona backline? McLane seems to hope so. So, maybe we will see more intricate patterns and offloading than before, or perhaps they have perfected their chip and chase kicks since week one against Army. Those would certainly be some exciting turns.

The Gaels do not want to get cute though. As McLane points out, they can’t afford to play too loose. Wheeling is coming in hot and they’re coming in hard. “They’re basic game-plan is that they’re going to beat you up, until you stop them.”

That, in the long run, is still what it really boils down to. We can talk about new patterns all we want, but the keystone of the sport is still going to be the battle of wills. “If you’re not willing to buckle your chin straps, it’s going to be a long day,” said McLane.

Both Wheeling and Iona are in excellent shape right now, both have momentum and both instinctively like that element of the game. Indeed this should be one the fans wish could last longer than 80 minutes.

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