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Thursday, September 15, 2016

Rugby East Drop: Wheeling Jesuit Beat Lindenwood-Belleville

By Ryan Trost

One full week into the new job and head coach, Tommy Duffy is officially swimming in duties at Wheeling Jesuit. Not that he or anyone else is complaining. It doesn’t get more hometown than this and his team is pretty darned stacked again this year after all.

Where Peter Malcolm and Allan Hanson were previously acting as student-athletes AND coaches, they now have the freedom to be “simply” student athletes again. Free to lead on the pitch with fewer worries on their minds, they and the Cardinals were flowing against the DII club. Good ball movement both inward and outward is one of the indicators that has Duffy excited about the season’s prospects.

With last year’s 1st Team All-Conference Fullback Allan Hanson moving to Fly-half after Joji (“Vaka”) Vakasisikakalala’s shoulder injury against Notre Dame College, the look of the Cardinals’ backline continues to shift, but in a good way. Hanson proved himself quite capable in both of his appearances in the #10. Considering his experience at Wheeling and with PRO Rugby’s Ohio Aviators, Malcom described the positional switch as more than smooth, “Fullback at Ohio is a playmaker’s position. We’re running a simplified version of the Ohio offense now, so it makes sense for him to direct the attack.”

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There is a possibility of Vaka playing again soon, but he is a capable fullback in his own right, so even when he does come back, the Cardinals are likely to slot him there and continue with the chemistry they have currently got in the scrum to ten exchange. Said Duffy, “Allan’s movement around the pitch was phenomenal (last week). As long as he keeps flowing like that, there is no reason to change it.”

Duffy has been so impressed with his troops thus far that his two major focuses have only been about tidying up some small technique issues (lower scrum position, for instance) and setting team goals that coincide with the players’ individual goal statements. That sort of direction is exactly what Malcolm and the team know they needed most.

“Mentally, it’s really good to have someone around the program like that,” said Malcolm. “Tommy upped the discipline level and we’ve all had really good conversations with him individually. We’ll have a team meeting to discuss those goals on Thursday.”

Duffy believes the goal agreements he has seen harken to a deep appreciation for and desire to reach their full potential. The seniors this year will be the second Wheeling class to graduate with four years of varsity experience. They have felt a significant brunt of fan and pundit doubt over the offseason and their drop from the D1A Top-20 has them particularly motivated to prove the naysayers wrong.

“Me personally, I always play with a chip on my shoulder, but definitely, team-wide we all feel we’ve been railroaded… we’re pissed off,” said Malcolm “Now we have a coach who’s behind us though and you’re going to see a much improved Jesuit team this year.”

Honestly, I like the cut of Malcolm’s jib and I like the team’s confidence despite all of the turmoil surrounding them. The D1-A voters do have their reasons for doubt though. In a year of massive change both in the lineup and on the staff, during a preseason in which their only two wins have come against DII competition, there currently are more questions than answers.

A lot of that them should be answered with St. Bonaventure coming to town this weekend.  Wheeling’s conference opener sets a perfect stage for the first big Rugby East stories on the season.

Jesuit has represented the baseline of the alpha group in Rugby East for a few years now. They want to prove they are still in that top tier. They also want to go deeper in the D1A playoffs than ever before. To do so, they need to start by getting back into the Top-20. To do that, they need to make a statement against up and comers, like St. Bonaventure.

Doing that in Tommy Duffy’s hometown return, for their hometown fans in their home opener would be, in my opinion, one very stylish way of accenting such a statement.

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