Duluth goes three-for-three, wins Men's Division II National Championship

In the USA Rugby Men's Division II National Championship, the University of Minnesota-Duluth was seeking its third Division II National Championship in as many tries while the War Hawks of the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater were looking to avenge last year's second place finish.

Both sides looked to play with width early, with Whitewater finding space early through fullback Eric Pachowitz but a Duluth counter ruck granted them a quick turnover. Duluth held the ball early, feeling out the Whitewater defense, but neither side was able to gain a clear advantage.

Duluth chose not to go for points when awarded a penalty under the posts five minutes into the game, but a great pass to right wing Nemuel Nyangaresi set the Fighting Penguins up on the goal line. Moments later, second row Connor Gleason crashed over the line for a try. The conversion was missed leaving the score at 5-0.

Photo: Vassar College v. Bloomsburg University, Furman University

Whitewater struggled with discipline early in the match, but when they did get their hands on the ball they attacked ferociously. Good driving carries from their forwards and quick half-breaks brought them inside the Duluth 22. The Fighting Penguins gave up a penalty in front of the posts, and Timothy Grams slotted the kick to make the score 5-3.

Duluth kept Whitewater under pressure in their own half and following repeated infringements, the ref needed to give the Hawks captain a talking to. Duluth found plenty of space in the Whitewater defense with a clever set-piece move, but after a knock-on the momentum was halted. Simple errors kept the Hawks in their own half, and their persistence with running the ball from deep did not yield dividends.

Whitewater finally broke out thanks to a stellar kick from Robert Sindic, which fell straight into the arms of the onrushing Alec Treuthardt. A penalty gave Whitewater the ball deep in the Duluth 22, but the stellar Duluth defense earned a turnover and Duluth cleared their half.

A booming kick from Duluth out-half Trace Bolstad set the Hawks back into their own side of the pitch. After Whitewater dropped the ball, inside center Austin Haecherl scooped it up and offloaded to outside center Logan Hanson who dotted down under the posts. This made the score 12-3 as Bolstad split the uprights. Whitewater's problems stemmed from silly errors, and Duluth were all too happy to capitalize.

Photo: Vassar College v. Bloomsburg University, Furman University

32 minutes into the half, outside center Robbie Sindic took a penalty quickly, and burst through the Duluth defense. Duluth gave up a penalty, and once again Whitewater elected to go for posts. Grams proved unflappable yet again, cutting the deficit to 12-6.

With 4 minutes to play in the half, Duluth No.10 Trace Bolstad took a penalty quickly, slipping through tackles before offloading to Logan Hanson who was tackled five meters out. Whitewater gave up a penalty, but Duluth, perhaps rushing themselves, knocked on the quick tap, giving The Hawks a lifeline on their own goal line.

Duluth had no trouble taking the lineout, and with No.8 Luc Desroches setting a physical precedent on the gainline, Whitewater gave up a penalty, and after so many infringements near their own line, the ref elected to send lock Zach Smith to the bin, and Trace Bolstad nailed the kick to make the score 15-6 with little time left on the clock. Duluth took the kickoff, and put the ball into touch, and that concluded a thrilling first half.

The second half started eventfully, with Desroches breaking away for the fighting penguins, before Whitewater hooker Garrett Shibilski halted him with a massive hit.

Photo: Vassar College v. Bloomsburg University, Furman University

For the most part, Duluth controlled possession and territory, and Whitewater simply couldn't make their mark on the match. The speed of the Duluth clear-out ensured they were able to cross the gainline, and it seemed the Hawks could only gather possession in their own half.

Whitewater's all action hooker Garrett Shibilski made a quick break down the sideline, and after Duluth gave away a penalty, it seemed the Hawks were on the verge of breaking through, however, yet another handling error forced them to start all over again. The Hawks restarted, but yet again they knocked the ball on, and again, Duluth were able to escape the danger zone.

Whitewater's Eric Pachowitz responded with a great "Garryowen" kick, but after he attempted to play the ball on the ground, he was penalized, and Duluth was on the attack yet again. The game devolved slightly at this point, with Whitewater consistently making mental errors, while Duluth played smart, simple rugby.

With 15 minutes gone in the half, the Hawks gave up a series of penalties in their own half, and the referee again went to the pocket, sending Whitewater prop William Tapio to the bin. This yellow card was probably the right decision, as the Hawks persistently committed cynical fouls to slow down the potent Duluth attack.

Outside center Robbie Sindic took a quick tap, and nearly cost his team dearly by holding the ball in one hand, but an off sides penalty gave the Hawks a second chance, and Timothy Grams was all to happy to put the ball over the bar to make the score 15-9. After a penalty for not releasing, Trace Bolstad attempted a kick of his own, but it pushed right, and the score remained 15-9.

Whitewater held the ball in the Duluth 22 for the next 10 minutes, running phase after phase, but the Duluth defense held its own, driving the Hawks back until they won a penalty. This was a crucial point in the match, as Duluth now held the ball and the momentum. The Fighting Penguins called upon their centers and their forwards to get them moving forward, and the likes of Austin Haecherl and Logan Hanson were all to happy to oblige, setting up a try for Matthew Martin. Whitewater seemed to have no answer for the Duluth centers, whose footwork bamboozled them throughout the match. This made the score 22-9 with 10 minutes to play, and after neither side could throw the ball straight into a lineout, the ball was back into the hands of Duluth.

Robbie Sindic's physical running could not offer any progress, as the smaller Duluth backs used strong chop tackles to bring him down behind the gainline. As time wound down, the Duluth forwards began to dominate their tiring opponents, as it became clear that the endless tackling had taken its toll on the Whitewater side.

With five minutes to play, Duluth had driven its way into the Whitewater 22, and yet more cynical fouls from Whitewater meant that Robbie Sindic was sent to the bin. Trace Bolstad made the kick, extending the Duluth lead to 25-9. With only a minute left, Garrett Shibilski took an offload from his fullback, and ran through a tackle to score in the corner for Whitewater. The conversion was missed, meaning the score stood at 25-14. With no time left on the clock, Whitewater launched one final assault, with Shibilski offloading to Samuel Koerner who scored in the corner to make the final score 25-19.

Photo: Vassar College v. Bloomsburg University, Furman University