Monday, October 10, 2016

Rugby East Drop: Penn State’s Heavy Duty Payoff at West Point

By Ryan J. Trost
This Is American Rugby - Rugby East

Under graying skies at the granite hewn Fortress West Point, Penn State’s 29-13 victory over Army lived up to expectation. The physicality and will of both teams matched the stone campus atmosphere, as spectators were treated to a full day of fast, battering rugby play.

The Nittany Lions got on the board in the first minute of the match with a Jimmy Ronan penalty kick. That stroke of luck gave way to a battle for territory that captured most of the remainder of the match. For the next almost 80 minutes, runners from both teams threw themselves to the wall, which answered back time and time again.

The Black Knights found overload opportunities a few times in the first quarter of play. A low pass here, a knocked offload there however, and Penn State was relieved. The Nittany Lions’ return counter discovered Army’s support runners ready for their own immediate defensive transition often. Penn State’s continuous reapplication of controlled possession though helped them burrow deeper into Army’s end as the half wore on.

That trend set up the game’s first try at just about the 19th minute, when Penn States’ Ryan McNulty offloaded from the corner to a switching Connor Cassidy. Jimmy Ronan’s conversion was true for a 10-0 lead. By this point some of the bruising was already beginning to show. Shortly after Ronan’s conversion, both teams made their first substitution (PSU’s Thomas Del Pino on at wing for Tyler May and Eli Brown into the front row for Adam Szott with Army).

As the two continued trading blows, Penn State remained ahead in possession and territory minutes. A few darting runs later, with the help of a slick behind the back offload from Fly-half Mike Dabulas, Penn State was able to force a scrum over Army’s five meter line. At the back of that effort, Malcolm May dropped in for the first of his three tries on the day.

The scrapping for yardage continued, with Army now applying more urgency and focus. At 30 minutes their 8-man, Ben Lemon was replaced by Raaqim Rispress. At 31, they put their first points on the board, through a Jon Kim penalty kick. The action remained between the 20’s for the remainder of the half, with Army’s #7, Alec Smith going off for a blood sub nearing the whistle.

Kim then hit another PK just moments before half, which set a new record for career penalty kicks at Army West Point Men’s Rugby. Penn State carried its 15-6 advantage into the break, and regrouped after withstanding their first real challenge on the year.In post-match interviews, a number of Nittany Lions agreed that the closing ten minutes of the first half were tense. It was the first real backwards change in momentum they had experienced on the season.

Army appeared to pin Penn State back to start the 2nd as well, but as Outside Center Joe Kelly pointed out, the Lions took that opportunity to make some calm and smart adjustments to their game. “We just got back to basics,” he said. “Keep the ball short and in our hands. No fifty-fifty balls.”

After an Army penalty relieved Penn State from that early 2nd half pressure again, Malcolm May picked the ball from the back of another scrum deep in Army’s end, registering his second try by committee on for the day. By the start of the 60th minute, the game abjectly felt like it was getting away from Army.

“I’d say the biggest lesson is ‘composure’,” said Army head coach Matt Sherman. “Some of the things we’ve improved on, we struggled at - now under pressure. We put a lot of balls on the ground when we had space… and discipline. We had a lot of penalties in their half of the field when we just really had no need to give it.”

A number of Army substitutions in the final quarter of play were met equally by Penn State. For the first time this year we saw Army’s vaunted forward pack take a decided loss in the scrums at the end of a game. “I think the nice thing is we’ve got a little bit of depth this year,” said Nittany Lions head coach Blake Burdette.

“We were able to put some guys in and didn’t lose any momentum and that was important to us. In fact in some cases there were guys that came on that were stronger than the starters and that was nice,” he continued. “You know, we’ve got to have 25-30 guys if we’re going to be an upper echelon team and we proved that we can get that done today.”

Indeed, still leading 22-6 in the 78th minute, it was on the back of yet another dominating scrum down for Penn State that flanker, Malcolm May finished the game with his third, nearly identical try.

“Penn State played very well,” said Sherman. “They did a great job of finishing opportunities.” Army will be in for another strong scrummaging opponent at Wheeling Jesuit next week. That match is sure to provide more interesting tales to tell.

Sherman spoke of being excited about the lessons his team learned this week. “I think there’s two ways to respond to this adversity,” he said. “We responded two different ways last year. One sent us into a tailspin and the second sent us into finishing on a real high note and playing well into the playoffs. We know what to do… and I’m confident this group will do that.”

Though Malcolm May had his hat trick, you would be hard pressed to get a single man of the match nod from most of the Nittany Lions. Captain and Inside Center Selby Niu, who played another exquisite game in his own right, left any such accolades to the entire forward pack. “The forwards play with a great platform and as a back it’s just really fun to play off their forward progress.”

Burdette echoed that sentiment, but included the backline as well. “For what we’re trying to do as a program, that’s a good program win for us against a really good team,” he said. “One of the things we (say) is, ‘It doesn’t matter who scores, it only matters that we score’, and that’s the mentality we have.”

This win cements the Penn State’s place as the conference favorite for the year, though Wheeling certainly has its foot in the door. They will have another hard charging team to deal with at Iona next week, while awaiting the result of Wheeling v Army. If Army can bounce back and take Jesuit down, the Nittany Lions will have a much clearer edge. If not, be ready for Halloween weekend in Happy Valley. The Cardinals will be coming to town.

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