Western Washington and Eastern Washington are the two left standing in the Northwest Collegiate Rugby Conference after both won semifinals Sunday, April 7.
For the two it was another chapter in the same story. Western won fairly easily, beating Oregon 58-10 in a tryfest that improved their conference record to 7-0, with an average score of 58-8.
Matt Tiscornia scored two tries for the Vikings and so did Preston Mo, while Jake Romano, Quinton Willms, Gio Trujillo, Nate Muir, Spencer Stevenson and Johnny Lu also touched down. Oregon battled hard, but had played the day before in the quarterfinals (the East and West conference winners got a bye) the day before, beating hosts Washington State.
WWU is the newest in a line of varsity and almost-varsity programs (Western is the latter), and like many others that have sprung up, they have made a quantum leap past their competition.
With former Canada age-grade coach Paul Horne now Director of Rugby and recruiting talent from both sides of the 49th Parallel, the Vikings have followed in the footsteps of Central Washington.
“We’re changing the culture,” said Horne. “We expect the guys to make a big commitment and we’ve had pretty good success with the commitment we’ve got. Everybody seems to have bought into the culture change. Some of the guys who have been there, four year players and a couple of fifth year players, have gone from a student-run program to where there are always three coaches on the field.”
It was not a sure thing who WWU would face in next week’s final. University of Washington, in their 50th year, lost only once in conference play, and that was to Washington. Undergoing a bit of a cultural change themselves under coach and former Eagle lock Brian Schoener, with former Eagle assistants Kevin Swiryn and Joe Rissone, they weren’t favored against Eastern Washington, but neither were they underdogs.
What they had to deal with was the fact they had played Idaho the day before at Cheney, Wash. The semifinal game, predictably, was a close one, with EWU prevailing 19-15.
“It was a rugby classic,” said EWU Coach David Ratcliff. “Driving wind, rain and hail. Each team took turns being pinned in their own half by a wind that made kicks go backwards, and eventually blew away the concession stand.”
EWU scored their points early, when they had the wind, and spent much of the second half defending in a perpetual goalline stand.
“Unable to kick to touch, we had to run everything, even from deep inside the try zone,” said Ratcliff.
With 18 minutes to go, EWU got a yellow card for not retreating ten meters on a penalty, and up a man in the forwards, the Huskies took the lead 15-14.
With two minutes to go, Eric Populus made a break. Populus has been almost everything for EWU in his time there, scoring points in every way, dominating the NCRC stats despite WWU’s big numbers, scoring a league-high 15 tries and 105 points (he was the third-best goalkicker in the NCRC based on points). He did this while shifting from No. 8 to flyhalf to center, and probably prop if he were asked.
He burst out of the Eastern 22, was hauled down by a desperate UW defense. The Eastern Washington forwards kept the phases going, inching forward, and then scrumhalf Cameron Bowers made a desperate dash to the line for the game-winner, much to the delight of the 100 or so hardy souls who watched the game in the wind and sleet.
“Despite the weather it was a game that made for tremendous drama, and the entire EWU squad offered a round of applause for all the fans at the end,” said Ratcliff. “The game was certainly as close as they come.”
The man of the match for Eastern was Keila Suka-Siose, a soft-spoken prop who riled his team with a heartfelt pregame speech that fired up his team.
Ratcliff said Washington suffered what he called a “considerable disadvantage” by having to play a quarterfinal the day before. Although, not having played in three weeks, Eastern Washington was certainly a bit rusty.
They won’t be rusty anymore, and will be ready to take on WWU Saturday at Magnusson Park in Seattle, the City that Spring Forgot, as the weather is expected to be chilly and rainy.
“We know full well that WWU will be heavy favorites on Saturday,” said Ratcliff. “They are a strong, well coached team. The first game between our two clubs was quite a battle, but WWU make no errors and pounce on any of their opponents. We would have to play a 100% error-free game to beat them. At the same time, we feel we can match them in many areas, and despite the individual credentials of some of their players, we have the best player on the pitch in Eric Populus.”