The US Military Academy and US Air Force Academy produced one of those classic games Friday night, as Army topped the Zoomies 35-27 at Anderson Rugby Complex on the campus of West Point.
The game was in doubt until the end, and only a late try by the Black Knights inched them into any sort of comfortable territory.
Air Force led early, using their speed and smart tactical kicking to score two tries.
Some pressure thanks to good work on the outside and some smart tactical kicking, set up Air Force center Joe Rippe for the initial try.
West Point’s capped flyhalf Will Holder slotted a penalty to make it 7-3, but Army gave those points back and more.
“When you give the other team a scrum at five meters off the kickoff, you’re going to have problems,” lamented Army Director of Rugby Rich Pohlidal. And, naturally, Air Force did score from there, sending, No. 8 Larry Lundin over. Scrumhalf Dan Lange was good on his second conversion, and Air Force led 14-3.
But Army bucked up and scored to make it 14-8 before a Lange penalty ended the half 17-8 Air Force.
“We were very happy to be up at halftime,” said Air Force Head Coach Joe Muehlbauer. “We were playing to our game plan and using our pace. But we also knew how Army would adjust; they would keep it tight and we had to be prepared for that.”
Army scored early through Greg Hamilton, and then Holder stole a ball to race in to give his side the lead 20-17.
That put Air Force on their heels, as the Zoomies started to lose the plot a little, and give up some silly penalties and turnovers.
Kyle Ulses sent a nice attacking kick for Holder to chase down, and with the flyhalf’s conversion Army led 27-17. Holder ended up with 20 points with two tries, two conversions, and two penalties.
The game, however, was not over. Wing Huston Harrison raced in for Air Force to make it 27-22, and after a Holder penalty, Zoomie flanker Ken Kinderwater intercepted a pass at his own 22 and raced about 80 meters for a crucial try. 30-27 Army.
After that, the Army forwards took over, keeping the ball close and working their way downfield. They were rewarded with a try, and that sealed the win.
“We closed the game out well,” said Pohlidal. “Air Force played really well; they were awesome. Their tactical kicking was exquisite. But what impressed me was how this was captain-led rugby. Both teams made adjustments before the coaches got involved. It was exciting, and well-played, and both teams played very tough.”
“It was a good game,” added Muehlbauer. “The kind of game where I almost wish I was just a spectator. Everything about it, the crowd, the setting, was great, except that we had the game and let it slip away.”
Before 2,000 vocal fans the players honored each other post-match by singing the alma maters, and ended the evening with a dinner.
“West Point always puts on a great spread,” said Muehlbauer. “They take care of us.”
It was a thriller on the banks of the Hudson River, and one worthy of a clash between the Military Academies.
“There was tons of pressure on the boys to win,” said Pohlidal. “It could have gone either way. There was a lot of class out there, and I think if people think about what college rugby should look like in America, this was a good picture of what it should look like.”
Tries: Holder 2, Beck, Hamilton 2
Convs: Holder 2
Pens: Holder 2
Air Force 27
Tries: Rippe, Lundin, Harrison, Kinderwater
Convs: Lange 2