Arkansas State won the USA Rugby College 7s National Championship Saturday, beating Life 21-7 at the Penberthy Sports Complex in College Station, Texas. The win capped off a 6-0 run over the course of two days for the Red Wolves.
Arkansas State’s Dylan Carrion opened scoring in the match with a try in the second minute. The Red Wolves went on the offensive following a Life penalty, and the diminutive Carrion sneaked past defenders for the short-range score. Zinzan Elan-Puttick converted to give ASU the 7-0 lead.
Life and Arkansas State traded turnovers for the next few minutes, with Life squandering a couple of prime scoring opportunities. The first came when Steyn Benade was penalized for crushing Life’s Joe Cowley off the ball. The Running Eagles opted for a lineout about 10 meters from pay dirt, but Shaun Potgieter stole the set piece to end the threat.
Life knocked on twice more in the attacking end, once from Calvin Nell and once from Jake McFadden, before finally keeping possession long enough to score. It was Nell who dove over in traffic and under the posts. Cowley converted, knotting the game at 7-7.
Arkansas fielded the ensuing restart cleanly, and Zac Mizell stepped through the Life defensive line, committed the sweeper, and offloaded to Potgieter who took it the rest of the way for the score. Elan-Puttick converted, putting the Red Wolves up 14-7 at intermission.
Life’s defense clamped down on ASU to start the second half, forcing the Red Wolves deep into their own end, but penalties allowed them to get out of trouble. Arkansas State picked up its intensity on defense, too, suffocating Life and forcing mistakes.
“I was really impressed with our defense this weekend, and Life, they’ve done that to us the last few times we’ve played them in the 7s games,” said Arkansas State coach Alex Houser. “I just kind of wanted to put pressure on them and force them into some uncharacteristic errors.”
A knock-on from Cowley, on Life’s side of the field, ended up giving Arkansas State the platform from which they’d ice the game. Off of the ensuing scrum, Elan-Puttick turned a broken play into a brilliantly worked try.
“We were going to bounce it back to the forwards, because they were already out there, and usually Zac Mizell does it, but he was being double teamed because of what a great tournament he’s had,” said Elan-Puttick, “and then Dylan, he gave me the ball and we were kind of under pressure, and I just thought I’d take a crack at it.”
Instead of sending the ball wide, Elan-Puttick penetrated a hole near the breakdown and cut against the grain before scooting under the posts to give ASU the lead. He converted to make it 21-7 with just four minutes to play.
Arkansas State then brought in some fresh legs, and pressure defense and ball retention kept Life off of the scoreboard the rest of the match.
The National Championship final marks the first time Arkansas State has ever beaten Life in 7s. The Running Eagles are the only team to ever beat ASU in 7s. They upended Arkansas State in the 2011 and 2012 South Independent Rugby Conference Championships and the 2011 National semifinals. The semifinal loss served as motivation for ASU this season.
“We were very talented last year. I think we were slightly better this year, but we had all the makings to be able win this tournament last year,” said Houser, “and, especially for the guys that played last year, I think they definitely were extra motivated, and the new guys came in and really, really fed off that and contributed to it, for sure.”
“I guess it almost feels better to beat Life for the first time in so many times, but the National Championship is great,” joked Mizell, who was named the tournament MVP, “and to do it with these guys, we’ve worked so hard for the past three months together, so that’s really the best part of it.”