Club Eastern Championships Preview

This weekend teams from the east travel to Obetz Ohio to vie for a position in the national championship in Glendale, CO. on June 2-3.

-MEN'S DIVISION I-

Mystic River Rugby vs. Norfolk Blues:
In a matchup of a quarterfinalist from last year and a team last seen in 2011, Mystic River will take on the Norfolk Blues. The two teams have two very contrasting records this year, but that should not lead one astray - this will be a tightly fought contest between two of the best teams in the country.

Mystic River might have the ugliest record of any team in playoff history, but their quality of opposition has been high all year, and their region earned a second seed to Nationals on the strength of its success in recent years (3 straight championship finals appearances by current members). The National Competitions Committee was also faced with few alternatives, after its initial desire to have the Eastern Championships duplicate the single-match format of the Western Championship wasn't possible due to scheduling issues. With three leagues participating, a fourth entrant was inevitable. Enter, 2016 D1 National Champion Mystic River Rugby. Coached by 2017 USA Rugby Coach of the Year Josh Smith, Mystic are significantly better than their record might otherwise indicate. Five of their losses were to professional outfits (Glendale, Rugby United New York, and the Ontario Arrows). Additionally, they had two losses to New York Athletic (NYAC) last Fall that they avenged in resounding fashion this Spring, with 66-7 and 48-22 victories. Their other losses came to 2014 champion Life (using many of its 2018 D1A champion college players) and Old Blue of New York, as well as a traveling UK side from Oxford. To that end, it's a credit to Smith and his players that they've been able to keep focus and round into a team that others might not be able to stop.

The Blues, contrastingly, have enjoyed a successful season from start to finish. Throughout their season they've only lost one game, which came at the hands of a quarterfinalist from last year, Rocky Gorge. Since that loss in November, Norfolk has reeled off eight consecutive wins by an average margin of 29 points. The Blues have proven over the course of this year that they can compete with some of the premier clubs in the country, and Saturday they will be provided with the opportunity to show they can win against teams with a national championship pedigree.  They will look to be the first team from the Mid-Atlantic to make it out of the Division I quarterfinals since 2005, when now-Southern Conference member Charlotte did so.

 
New York Athletic Club (NYAC) vs. Chicago Lions:
The second Eastern Semifinal (national quarterfinal) to be played in Ohio this weekend will be a rematch of last year's Eastern Championship, as NYAC takes on the Chicago Lions. NYAC, last year's runner-up and the 2015 national champions, is on a campaign to make up for a tough loss to last year in the National Championship. To get to the same stage as they did last year, however, they'll need to beat at least one of the same teams from last season's playoff run.

NYAC's season thus far has been an impressive one, but recently they have been hampered by injuries and players leaving for professional opportunities. They put together strong results in the ARP during the fall and in the Spring they have been busy preparing for nationals by playing Major League Rugby teams such as the Houston SaberCats and the Glendale Raptors. Both of these fixtures resulted in a loss, but both games were played closely. In fact, NYAC's 39-38 defeat in a February match at Houston after not playing for 3 months shows just how elite they can be when in form. For NYAC to advance this weekend they will need to execute their basics with precision, and look to their forward pack to set a platform for their halves to operate from. NYAC will have its hands full with the Chicago Lions, and will need to rely on standouts such as Seamus Kelly (Eagle #440) and Nate Brakeley (Eagle #469), and other marquee talents like Alexander Hodgkinson, Kirkland Hamilton, and Jack Fitzpatrick to carry them through.

The Chicago Lions have played one of the longest - if not the longest - schedules in all of Club Rugby this year. Through the twenty matches that they have played they've been able to secure an impressive 14-6 on the season. In the Fall they competed in the Midwest Premiership, and in the Spring they competed in the Thunderbird Cup, going a perfect 5-0. However, they know what awaits them when they take on NYAC. Last year when these two teams faced each other at Founders Field in Pittsburgh, NYAC was able to produce a solid 27-5 victory. It is hard to compare the two teams for this year, as they have played different schedules and have shared few opponents, though they did both play Old Blue of New York. Both teams were able to muster a win against their opponent by similar margins. For Chicago, they won by five points where NYAC won its last encounter with its rival by 10 (NYAC and Old Blue faced three times). However, this doesn't tell you much about Saturday's game other than it has the potential to be an eighty-minute affair. This game may come down to Chicago's ability to shut down the multifaceted offense of NYAC, and how well the Lions are able to establish their attacking flair through the likes of Jacob Hildago and Elliot Thiem. The Lions have a lot of experience in the quarterfinals, having appeared at this stage nine times before, so they're hoping this will carry them well through on Saturday. Both teams are familiar with each other and left last year's competition disappointed in their results. As such, both will be out with a point to prove come Saturday.

 
-WOMEN'S DIVISION I-

Detroit Rugby vs. Boston Rugby:
The first division of women's rugby will see Detroit take on Boston. Neither team made it this far in last year's competition, but are storied programs in the women's community. Detroit made it to the Midwest Championship but fell short to a strong Chicago North Shore side, who has since joined the Women's Premier League. For Boston, this is their first time back in the national quarterfinals since 2016. Both teams will be fighting for their second ever Division I semi-final spot.

Detroit's season has been the story of two halves. In the Fall, they were dominant, running through their conference schedule without a scrape and going a perfect 7-0. Since winning the Midwest Championship, however, they've gone 0-6, including several tough losses in the women's edition of the Rugby Gold Cup. Their Spring form isn't necessarily indicative of their top form though, as Detroit played their competitive matches in the fall, meaning the Spring likely has been more experimental. There is one important result to look at from the Spring and that was their match against their opponent on Saturday, Boston, who they fell to 17-0 in a Rugby Gold Cup match on March 24. Overall, this will be Detroit's third Division I quarterfinal appearance, having last made it in 2015. Prior to moving to Division I, Detroit was a three-time Division II National Champion (2003, 2004, 2007).

Boston throughout the year has been searching for consistency in their results. They started the year off 0-3 but then reeled off four wins, only to lose their next two, and so the trend continued. However, they've found consistency when they've needed it most and in four of their last three outings they have put on remarkable displays of rugby. Included in that set of results was their 17-0 shutout of Detroit and a 39-12 victory over a tough Albany Sirens side in the Atlantic North championship. Going into Saturday they'll know that the Detroit side they'll face will likely be closer to the Fall outfit than the one they saw in March. This match promises to be an entertaining spectacle, and looks as if it will be a contest between Detroit's high-powered attack and Boston's stingy defense.

Raleigh Venom vs. Philadelphia Rugby:
The wounds from the last time these two met will have barely healed by the time they kick off again on Saturday. Raleigh, last year's national runner-up, and Philadelphia, a 5-time national quarterfinalist, met two weeks ago in the Mid-Atlantic Women's Division I Championship game. On that occasion, it was Raleigh that came out on top, 47-25, and booked their spot in the Eastern Semifinals. For Philadelphia, being on the losing end of meant they went into a repechage last weekend against Albany to make it into this weekend, where they prevailed at the death thanks to a 80th-minute try from Katie Cardone and a clutch conversion from Coryn Rank.

Philadelphia is a team that has surprised many this year, not only for making it this far, but for the way in which they did it. They went through their conference undefeated including two wins over the Venom. Further, all of their wins this year have been by more than seven points, always denying their opposition a losing bonus point. It has been a stark contrast to last year where they were only able to muster one win. Despite their last result against the Venom, they will have to like their chances this weekend as they've done it twice before. Philadelphia just needs to ensure that their discipline to their structure is in order, as that was the cause of their downfall last time round.  Regardless of how the game goes on the weekend, Philadelphia will be proud of the turnaround that they've produced this year.     

The Venom's season has taken a little while to get into full bloom but it has been worth the wait. After going 3-3 in their league schedule they've righted the ship, and have become particularly lethal. Since their last loss in November, they've knocked off nine wins in a row, with the fair majority of them by a considerable margin. As they are feeling more and more comfortable in their pattern they've proven to be one of the most dangerous teams coming into the national playoffs, and will be a handful for any team that they come against. Anytime two teams play each other more than twice in a season it is a special occasion. In this instance, it is going to be extra special seeing these two lock horns for the fourth time in one season.

 

-MEN'S DIVISION II-

Detroit Tradesmen vs. Morris Rugby:
It's a battle of the old and new guard this weekend when two of the most dominant teams on the eastern seaboard meet, as the Detroit Tradesmen take on Morris Rugby. Both clubs return to the national quarterfinals this year, though this time the Life Running Eagles D2 program doesn't stand in their way. The Tradesmen fell to Life 32-27 after dispatching the now-D1 Washington Irish in Eastern Semifinals, while Morris fell to Life in the quarterfinals, 34-13.

The Tradesmen poleaxed their way through their conference schedule in the Fall, going 8-0 with their lowest margin of victory being 21 points. In the Spring, it wasn't much different as they went 3-1 in the Midwest Thunderbird Cup, where their only loss was to a D1 playoff-bound Chicago Lions. Their recipe for success has been equal measures of dynamic attack and bastion-like defense. They are a large and physical team that relish any opportunity for contact. Their backline is packed with strong, fast, and hard runners that will be busting up the gut attempting to break the seams of Morris's defense structure. If Detroit is going to win this game they will need to dominate from the beginning of the game. If they can make the first twenty minutes as physical and fierce as possible, it will be hard for Morris to sustain any threat for an eighty-minute period.

Morris has been nearly as dominant this year, losing only a single game. In fact, they have almost run parallel to the Tradesmen: both teams played eight conference games and in those eight games Morris's point differential of 283 is ten points higher than that of the Tradesmen. One of the major keys to the success of the Lions this year has been the combination of the Feury brothers, Blaze and Jake. The two of them combined have contributed 313 points to the men from New Jersey this season. The success of Morris will start and begin with those two. If Blaze is provided with solid ground work to get the ball to Jake, the Tradesmen will be in for a very long day. This promises to be a high scoring rollercoaster of an affair. 

Atlanta Renegades vs. Doylestown Dragons:
The second Eastern Men's Division II Semifinal will be between the Atlanta Renegades and the Doylestown Dragons, two teams who both missed out on the playoffs last year but aren't strangers to the playoffs overall.

Doylestown has been on a tear this year going through their competition without a second thought. Through their eight conference games they only let in 96 points while putting up an insane 569 points, averaging over 71 points a game. The keys to Doylestown's success has come from an impressive backline as four members of the backline have crossed the line five time or more. They will be looking to play a fast paced and expansive game. Line speed and secure tackling from Atlanta will be their keys to shutting down the immense attacking capabilities of Doylestown.

For Atlanta, they have been consistent all year, never suffering more than one loss in a row, but it took a try at the death by Corey Patton and a conversion by Samuel Trammel (kicking in place of injured starting kicker, Gannon Karena) for the Renegades to escape the National Athletic Village with the Southern Conference D2 Championship over Southern Pines, who was a 2017 D3 National Semi-Finalist. The thrilling contest had six lead changes overall, and avenged a 46-18 defeat the Renegades felt to Southern Pines just two weeks earlier. While the Renegades haven't dominated their competition in the same manner that Doylestown has, they are still a force to be reckoned with, as proven by their win against Southern Pines to make it into the Eastern Semis.  

 

-WOMEN'S DIVISION II-

Cincinnati Kelts vs. Providence Rugby:
This weekend Providence Rugby, last season's Eastern Championship Runner-Up, will look to go one step further than they did last year and advance to the National Championship game. Before they can do that again they will have to come up against a fierce Cincinnati Kelts squad, who represent the formative Midwest Women's Division II competition. 

Providence has been in fine form this year, winning all of their matches against Division II opponents, beating a Division I team once, and only seeing defeat against teams from Division I. Providence has not been beating teams as soundly as Cincinnati has, but that is a product of Providence playing in a hybrid Division I/II competition. The brunt of Providence's domination comes from their backline, particularly their inside center, Nazareth Cardoso, and their winger, Melissa Keene. Between this dynamic duo they have scored 32 tries this season, with Cardoso being just shy of cracking twenty tries on the season. If Cincinnati wants to stop Providence from advancing they'll need to keep those two well clear of the try line.

The Kelts fell out of the playoffs in the Midwest Semifinals last year, after suffering a narrow loss to Buffalo Rugby. This year they avenged that loss and have made it through to the Eastern Semis. Now that they are in, they'll be looking to make their presence felt. The Midwest Women's D2 competition is arguably the nation's best, having produced four out of the five last national champions, as well as all five of the eastern champions since the 2013-2014 national competition restructure. To that end, the Cincinnati Kelts have large boots to fill, and arguably enter the event as the favorite given its region's strong pedigree. In addition to the caliber of their competition, they will also be seen as team to beat given their 11-1 record.

Charlotte Rugby vs Harrisburg Rugby:
Harrisburg and Charlotte are two teams with a wealth of experience in the national quarterfinals, with the two teams making a combined five national quarterfinals appearances in the past 3 years.

Harrisburg enters this year's event for the third consecutive season, which may have surprised some given the club's slow start to the season. The women from central PA dropped their first two matches; first to eventual regular-season champion Doylestown, and then in a massive upset (52-12) to eventual 6th-place Brandywine. Following the wake-up call versus the Riot, however, Harrisburg seemingly turned it on, allowing only its rematch with Doylestown to get within 10 points. Harrisburg won that match, the 2018 Mid-Atlantic Final, in thrilling fashion after a Georgia Goodman penalty kick in the 80th minute put them over Doylestown, 20-17. If they are able to bring a little bit of that magic with them they will be a tough test for any team that comes up against them.

Charlotte is perhaps the biggest mystery of the Women's D2 bracket in Ohio. After defeating opponents in their local league by an average of 80+ points per match, Charlotte struggled in the Southern Conference playoffs with both the Knoxville Minx (requiring a try in the 75th minute to prevail) and D2 powerhouse Fort Miami (who it didn't lead against until receiving a penalty try in the 60th minute). Charlotte has big ambitions to move into Division I and their ability to produce results on a national scale will have a direct impact. Will this weekend be the sparkplug to ignite their journey into Division I?

 
-MEN'S DIVISION III-

Fort Wayne Rugby vs. Long Island Rugby:
In a battle of two new comers to the Division III National Quarterfinals, Fort Wayne will take on the men from Long Island Rugby. Both teams are undefeated this season, as are their potential opponents in the next round, since all four teams in the Division III Eastern Championships are impressively without a blemish to their season.

Fort Wayne has gone an extraordinary 16-0, and comes out of the same region that saw 2017 D3 Eastern Champion Bremer County. Fort Wayne saw plenty of tough Midwest playoff matches to get here, including 24-13 result over the Pittsburgh Highlanders, a 24-19 win over the Toledo Celtics, and a 25-22 victory over the Iowa City Ducks in the Midwest Championship. Fort Wayne has only played friendlies this Spring, and hasn't seen much of a fight, which either means they're clicking on all cylinders, or didn't face tough-enough competition to prepare them for an on-fire Long Island side. They have a backline full of finishers, with three of their backs they accounting for twenty-eight tries on the season. Long Island will undoubtedly be looking for ways to shut down their ability to send it wide.

For Long Island, they have been a class and a half above all of their opponents this year, going a commendable 12-0, and amassing an average winning margin of 49 points per game. They've been tearing through teams all year, including the playoffs. Their closest match was a game that they won, at the beginning of the Empire playoffs, by 18 against a tough Lansdowne side. They have been led by Atlantis standout Alex DeSouza as well as Anthony Russo, their fly-half and wing respectively. It is going to be a tough game to predict because of how impressive both teams have been throughout the year, but the one thing that you can count on is a boat load of points to be scored.

Palm Beach Panthers vs Phoenixville White Horse:
It is unchartered territory for both of these teams as they venture into their first national quarterfinals. Both teams have been enjoying a successful season, with White Horse galloping through the Mid-Atlantic and the Panthers striding through the Florida competition, and have put together an impressive CV heading into the weekend.

Palm Beach's path to the Eastern Championships has benefited from playing in one of the nation's better D3 leagues (Florida), and a series of close affairs with the likes of Gainesville, the Bay Area Pelicans, and Asheville will have them in good stead for any of the tests that are thrown in front of them this weekend.

Phoenixville has hovered near success for several years, and finally found the formula for a trip to Nationals in 2018. White Horse was the Mid-Atlantic D4 champion in 2015, but its 13-5-1 record in D3 the past two years saw it just coming up short of the Mid-Atlantic Division III playoffs in 2016 and 2017. This year they have made it over the hump and it will be interesting to see what they are able to make of their first opportunity on a scale such as this.

Starting at $12 tickets for the Eastern Championships are still available. If you can't make it to the Championships you can watch it via  usarugbytv.com