Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
by Ted Hardy
The first season of play in the Atlantic Coast Rugby League is about to culminate with the ACRL Championship tomorrow in Charlotte. One of the first collegiate rugby conferences to align along traditional NCAA boundaries, the ACRL has been a resounding success and set the foundation for what should be a long and prosperous venture.
It has been nearly two months since North Carolina edged Maryland 23-20 on a February afternoon in Chapel Hill. The game was the opening match for each team in their inaugural Atlantic Coast Rugby League campaigns.
Predicted to finish middle of the pack in a pre-season coach’s poll, the win set the tone for the Tar Heels season. North Carolina finished the conference season with a perfect 6-0 record that also included wins over contenders Clemson and Virginia Tech.
“We are really excited about reaching the finals, since it was our goal at the beginning of the season, and I think a lot of other teams wrote us off in the preseason,” said North Carolina Coach Pete Earsman.
The Terrapins were undaunted by the opening loss and swept the remainder of their games to reach the ACRL Championship. Expected to contend for the title, Maryland (5-1) did just that and in doing so faced perhaps the toughest schedule of all of the team in the ACRL.
“The travel was brutal,” said Maryland Coach Jeff Soeken in regards to their early season trips to play in North Carolina.
Maryland opened up their season with three straight road games in North Carolina and needed back to back wins over the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech to secure their place in the title match.
Despite it all, the Terps came through with flying colors and set up a rematch with the Tar Heels.
“I am beyond excited for the game on Saturday,” said ACRL President and Wake Forest Head Coach Pat Kane.
“I know UNC well from having played against them many times over the past few years and I was really impressed with what I saw out of Maryland when we played them at Wake in March. Both teams have tremendous backlines and loose forwards. Regardless, it is going to be one heck of a game and a fitting way to end a successful first conference season.”
Both teams are littered with ACRL All-Conference Team members and the squads also boast the ACRL Co-Players of the year in Matias Cima of Maryland and Alex Lee of North Carolina.
The game is set to kickoff tomorrow afternoon (3pm EST) at the Skillbeck Athletic Grounds in Charlotte, North Carolina. The forecast is calling for sunny skies and a high in the low 80’s which will provide an excellent platform for a championship game.
If the ACRL Championship wasn’t enough of a reward, the winner of the game represents the ACRL in the USA Rugby Division I Round of 16 in Bowling Green, Ohio. The ACRL Champ takes on the University of Florida in the first round in Ohio.
“I think that whoever wins the ACRL Championship game, be it Maryland or North Carolina, will be well-prepared for the national playoffs. They have both been battle tested throughout the season with difficult matchups. We got a tough draw having to play Florida, who is a top 5 D1 team in the country, no doubt. But I have confidence that the ACRL representative will show well,” said Kane.
On the field, the Tar Heels focus will be on limiting Maryland’s flyhalf Matias Cima.
“We are looking forward to playing Maryland again. We have a lot of respect for them and they are a very dangerous team with some tremendous athletes,” said UNC’s Earsman.
“They have a solid front row and a brilliant flyhalf. If he gets good ball from his forwards, he can single handedly win the game for them.”
The Tar Heel coaching staff notes that the game may very well come down to the defensive effort put forth by both teams. North Carolina rallies around Captain Alex Lee who has helped galvanize the team and push the squad will his workout programs.
North Carolina looks to set the tempo for the game and try to diffuse the advantageous Terrapin offensive attack.
The Tar Heel staff is also quick to acknowledge the effort put forth to create the ACRL.
“We have to mention Pat Kane, our league commissioner, for putting this league together with the help of Andy Richards of Virginia Tech. It has been the most completive season as far as all the players and coaching staff are concerned and we want to tip our hats to these gentlemen,” added the North Carolina coaching staff.
Maryland brings a much improved squad to Charlotte than when they first met the Tar Heels in February. Soeken has made five changes to his lineup from the first time the two teams met. All five of which are based on form players that worked their way into the lineup over the course of the season.
“We are better than we were eight weeks ago and we have a better idea of what we’re up against,” added Soeken. “Our forward play has gotten much better.”
The improving forward play sets the platform for the talented Matias Cima whom Soeken calls one of the best college rugby players he’s ever seen. The Terrapin attack is tailored around Cima who has done an amazing job, as a freshman, controlling the tempo of games and putting runners into space.
“We need to do a better job on defense and finishing,” says Soeken as he recollected two missed opportunities early in Maryland’s first game against North Carolina.
While the outcome of the game is yet to be decided, one thing is for certain, fans are going to be in for a treat tomorrow when Maryland and North Carolina take the field.
ACRL Commissioner Kane knows this is just the tip of the iceberg for the Atlantic Coast Rugby League. They have sponsorship from Adidas and World Rugby Shop, a blossoming 7’s tournament in the fall, and now prepare to complete their first season as a full blown conference.
“I think the first season of the ACRL went about as well as could be expected. We had a few minor hiccups along the way, but overall things ran very smoothly and it was a great season,” said Kane of the inaugural ACRL season.
“The fact that we had two weeks left in the season and more than half of the teams in the league were still in the hunt for the championship game says a lot about how competitive the league was.”
Kane also sees the possibility of a long term partnership with the Charlotte RFC and the promotion of the ACRL Championship game.
“Ideally we’d like to continue to grow the ACRL Championship to the point where we can get enough sponsorship to get it broadcast on television. At a minimum, it needs to be available to viewers live online in coming years,” adds Kane.
“Charlotte RFC has been fantastic offering their facilities for our use and in promoting the game locally to the vibrant high school rugby community in the area and. I could definitely foresee a long-term partnership developing with them for this game.”