The USA Rugby South all-star team, a squad made up almost entirely of DII club and various college players, defeated Trinidad & Tobago to complete an astounding run to win the North American Caribbean Rugby Association (NACRA) 15s men’s championship.
USA Rugby has sent the South All-Stars into NACRA for the last two years, and this year, the program has come together despite having to travel for virtually every game.
The South got to the final first by winning their initial pool, which included Mexico and Jamaica. They beat Mexico 56-23 in January and Jamaica 19-7 in February. That put them in a round-robin in a new North Pool. They won that, also, beating Cayman Islands 9-7, the Bahamas 42-15, and then took down Bermuda 24-12.
Meanwhile Trinidad & Tobago beat Barbados 19-6 and Guyana 20-0 to win the South.
Cayman Islands beat Bermuda 20-14 to take 2nd in the North.
Saturday, the final at the Fatima College grounds in Trinidad & Tobago was a close one. T&T were the stronger squad in the first half and led 18-13 at the break. But a South try tied the game up, and then the Panthers scored two more times to win it 26-18.
“I think the gravity of the moment caught up to the guys a bit,” said South Coach David Conyers. “We did a lot of things we haven’t been doing all season. We took a lineout off the top near our line, and they grabbed it and scored. We missed touch, and missed some kicks, and gave away penalties. It was tough. But at halftime we came together and settled down.”
The South rallied after that. Lock forward Stephen Hickey of Augusta won Man of the Match honors for the day, while Derek Wolfe was given Player of the Series by the team.
“Without what Derek did, we wouldn’t have won,” said Conyers. This is, according to an official on-site in T&T, the first time that a provincial team has won an IRB championship. This was accomplished without most of the more celebrated players from the region (i.e., players from Life University), and in fact was accomplished with many players unable to perform every game (something Wolfe and Hickey were indeed able to do).
Forty-seven players suited up for the Panthers in the NACRA series, and, said Conyers, “we are indebted to every one of those guys for helping us toward winning thing championship. American rugby is tough, and we don’t have a lot of money. We held raffles to pay for some guys, and we did get some [IRB] help, it was still on the players. The more we won, the more they sacrificed from work and home and everything else to be able to play. Because of all that, this is the most gratifying day I have ever had in rugby.”
"It was just solid heart by out guys," added South Coach Rene Daniel. "They were exhausted. Trinidad runs a very wide game with serious speed. We changed the defense to adapt to a 7s style of attack - our guys were patient and allowed them to make their moves and then capitalized on isolation."
T&T, said Daniel, is fast enough to break off a 90-meter run at any time.
"They are that athletic," said Daniel. "But our forward game and our bench put them under pressure. It was a very exciting, nail-biting game."
Near the end of the match the fans left their seats and crowded around the field as the tension and excitement built.
USA Rugby South 26 Trinidad & Tobago 18
USA Rugby South 24-12 Bermuda
USA Rugby South 42-15 Bahamas
USA Rugby South 9-7 Cayman Islands
USA Rugby South 29-12 Jamaica
USA Rugby South 56-23 Mexico