|Phil Mack looking to distribute|
|Denver flyhalf Maximo DeAchaval|
|Glendale's Ata Malifa fending off Dallas' Shaun Potgieter|
The Woodlands Exiles, the upstart club out of Houston, went 5-0 Saturday en route to Denver 7s and West titles and the West’s top seed to Nationals. The club was formulated from nothing several months ago, and they’ve been enjoying unparalleled success since.
“Every goal we’ve set we’ve hit so far,” said Exiles wing and former Washington Redskin tailback Yamar Washington. “Obviously, the next goal is to win Nationals, and hopefully we’ll hit that, too.”
The fledgling Houston club started the day against Ft. Bliss, which was overmatched in the qualifier division, and won 52-0.
Next was Aspen, a team they’d dismantled with relative ease in Kansas City two weeks prior. They were put on the back foot early, but prevailed 24-10.
The final game of pool play was against Glendale, then ranked first in the RUGBYMag.com 7s power rankings. The Raptors got ahead early when center Mike Kenyon squirted through a gap at point-blank range after Glendale utilized good field position.
“Glendale pinned us down in our half and waited for us to make a mistake and scored two quick tries,” said Exiles forward Mark Aylor. “We came back at the end of the first half and cleaned up in the second half.”
The Exiles outscored the Raptors three tries to one in the second stanza to win 26-19.
In the other pool, the Denver Barbarians and Dallas Harlequins had both jumped out to 2-0 starts defeating the Kansas City Blues and Rogues. Denver’s scorelines were relatively close, while the Harlequins beat the Kansas City teams by a combined score of 69-7. The discrepancy in scores versus common opponents proved moot, as Denver decimated the Quins 31-7.
Each semifinalist entered the tournament tied with six qualification points, making the semifinals and third-place games of utmost importance. Winning any of those three would punch a team's ticket to Nationals Aug. 6-7 in San Francisco.
They were played simultaneously, but didn’t play out with symmetrically. The Barbos jumped out to a big lead on Glendale and held on for a 28-19 win. The Raptors were without playmaker Shae Tamati, who was injured earlier in the day. The former New Zealand U21 player had been electric for them all summer.
The other semifinal, between the Exiles and Quins, was a heated battle of wills. Both Texas teams, they’ve developed what looks from the sidelines like a budding rivalry. Shaun Potgieter was physically imposing for Dallas and Hunter Leland elusive, but the playmaking combination of John Moonlight, Nathan Rogers, Phil Mack and Mark Aylor for the Exiles was just as effective.
The play of the game was in the first half, when a Harlequin broke away for what seemed like a try, but Moonlight, the Canadian international, continued his pursuit of the ball carrier, who started his initial dive for a try just short of the tryline. Moonlight, mid-tackle, rolled over the attacker and stole the ball before it was touched down, preventing Dallas from extending their lead.
Dallas matched the Exiles with three tries in the game, but Mack, the Canadian 7s captain, made two conversions to Leland’s none, giving the Exiles a 19-15 win.
The third-place game, which would send its winner to Nationals with the West’s third seed, was a blowout. The dejected Harlequins were outmatched in every facet of the game by Glendale, who boasted a 19-0 lead at halftime and won 33-12, never leaving the game in doubt.
The final, however, was very closely contested. The Barbarians won the first half 7-0, and the Exiles only threatened to score once, but that attempt was ruined by a forward pass. Just as they had done against Aspen and Glendale, the Exiles didn’t panic when trailing in the final. They had too much experience on the field, including Moonlight, who rose to the occasion.
He stole ball with ferocity, crashed through defenders and ran precise lines of support. He was the engine that drove the Exiles to a second-half comeback and 21-14 victory. His Denver counterpart, Ben Haapapuro, also had an excellent final, but his team lacked the firepower to capitalize on the effort.