Thursday, January 8, 2015

Red River Rugby Conference Division 1 Men's pre-season predictions

Preface & Disclaimer: MJ @RugbyCommon asked the question: "What are your preseason rankings for Texas Conference Men's D1?" This article is all his fault.

There is little doubt that the 2015 Red River Rugby Conference Men's Division 1 will be much more hotly contested than the 2013-2014 season. Last year, by mid-season, NOLA & the Reds had their eyes on the prize and NOLA was steamrolling (except for that one day in Houston). While the Reds and NOLA remain the teams to beat, neither will have it easy in 2015.

In talking to coaches and administrators in all divisions of the RRRC, there seems to be a heightened effort and focus by more clubs than normal to play better rugby. No division sees this paradigm shift as starkly as Division 1 does.

The D1 clubs focused their recruiting efforts on collegiate standouts and foreign hopefuls in greater numbers. Only two clubs refrain from bringing in foreign talent (instead of only two clubs bringing in foreign talent from a few years ago). Every RRRC D1 club has more highly technical and strategic coaches in place. Only three clubs employ the player/head-coach model which is a change from years ago. Most importantly, many of these coaches stress high-pressure defenses that create turnovers and regain possession (a trump card in the picks).

In 2015, I don't think any team will end the season worse than 4-8. That's right, even the eventual cellar-dweller should post 4 wins! If that prediction proves true, then no team should reign undefeated this year. This will be a tough season.

My pre-season picks are:
  1. Dallas Reds
  2. New Orleans
  3. Austin Huns
  4. Austin Blacks
  5. Griffins Rugby
  6. HARC
  7. Dallas Harlequins

Dallas Reds - This club is NOT happy about their 2014 finish. This year, the Reds have enough players out to support three sides against DARC & the Quins  a few weekends past. Their 2nd and 3rd XVs may not have fared well, but their 1st XV made a 74-3 statement against the Quins. The Reds also boast numerous players that have served on various representative rugby sides in 2014 (Tiger, City 7s, Republic of Texas, and TRU All-Star XVs). They also have a player exchange program set-up with the Wiamea Old Boys of Nelson Bay in New Zealand. This means they will also have some Kiwi players on the pitch to bolster experience.  But most importantly, they seem to have a new focus. The Reds' Filip Keuppens told us, "(Coach) Dean Robinson and the rest of the staff have implemented a new approach to training sessions and a bit of a heightened focus on helping the players develop the character and commitment that we feel is essential for a successful organization." The Reds only lost three players from the squad that placed fourth in the nation last year, but they've traded a "sense of entitlement for a focus on individual commitment" according to club officials. Dallas RFC will stay on top as long as they can manage the injuries and regular pitfalls of club rugby.

NOLA - No doubt in anyone's mind, NOLA was the team to beat last year. They will not be easy to best this year. This club possesses the experience of advancing to National Championship matches in more than one Division. NOLA will battle most of the season without the goose-step of Chance King Doyle - who will play in NZ this Spring/Summer - and Elliot Bruce - who returned to Australia in the off-season. However, NOLA sees prop Wes Eustis return after a year of coaching due to neck injury. Additionally, 7s specialist Ryan O'Leary slides into the lineup and NOLA received a transplant from the San Francisco Bay Area, Sean Gallagher. Finally, the head-banded Bobby Johns and Old Marooner Jeffery Reuther return to duty from a summer of 7s with El Azul. Still, depth is always a concern for NOLA and thus Coach Trip McCormick institutes systems that allow players to slot in where needed. Coach McCormick and his staff have high expectations for the team. They may have given the players time off in the Fall to recover from the grueling 2014 XVs & 7s seasons, but they still intend to be "aggressive on defense and enterprising on offense." NOLA is the team to beat in 2015 and, as such, is the number two pick for this season.

Austin Huns - They've got numbers this year. Their new coach, Lachlan Ferguson, runs a notoriously tight defensive structure, strong scrummaging, and a strong attacking base from lineouts. the Huns return all but four of their 2014 starters including Texas All-Star locks Craig and Bryan Wellborn and Maccabi scrumhalf Shawn Cox. The Huns add depth to this experience with plenty of new blood from the collegiate ranks. Several St Edward's alumni - rugby players very familiar with Coach Lach's patterns - have joined Huns Rugby, including flyhalf Andor Benyi, a South African who spent the last three years splitting the uprights while leading the Hilltoppers' in overall scoring. Additionally, former Aggie speedster Justin Hale, former Texas State lock Tim Barton, and Bonobo 7s' John Teiveira have joined the Huns. Finally, the Huns' depth  expands from the addition of  flanker Eli Mowen joining from Queensland's Eastern District's RC, scrumhalf Ben O'Connor from Brisbane South's Premier Grade squad, and tighthead prop Joshua Crickmay from the Natal Sharks Academy. Returning all the previous season's starters, adding collegiate and overseas' players that equate to a complete squad in and of themselves, AND fielding a competitive D3 squad is promising progress for any club. What impresses the most about the Huns this season is their commitment to improvement as a team. In an interview, Coach Lach stated, "Our focus is not on our opponents but ourselves. Each week we will have a different opponent but every week we have to be happy with our own efforts. If you take care of your job, the score line will take care of itself." The Huns definitely will produce some exciting rugby in 2015.

Austin Blacks - The Blacks beat Santa Monica on the road in Los Angeles this Fall. Had the Blacks held the Dolphins to two tries or less, they'd be in my number three spot and bucking for number two. Consistent defense is the trump card. Still, the Blacks have recruited some serious firepower to an already explosive backline for this year.  Former Arkansas State standouts Zac Mizell, Pat Sullivan, and James Cobble slot into the backs and former Red Wolf lock Rob Hayslip adds beef and championship experience to the forwards. The Blacks also recruited former UT Captain Danny Camara, Bruce Hicks from Armed Forces rugby, Joedee Reyes from San Antonio RFC, Jacob Cole from the San Marcos Greys, and Liston Ogana from the Denver Barbarians. Matt Radzavich, Brad Vaughan, Pete Kanicki, and the hard-running former Blue Bull Brendan Rams join the Blacks for 2015, as well. The Blacks hail the return of two "legendary" Blacks, Troy Mussey and Curtis "Twinkle Toes" Chaffin.  Finally, the Blacks beef up their line-up with young Blue Bull flanker, Riekert Hattingh, and Hawkes Bay center, Tua Kereti (brother of the Blacks' Levi Kereti). Several of these names should be familiar to Texas rugby fans as they have populated the rosters of past All-Americans and the 2014 Negro y Azul squad. Blacks' Player/Coach Tane Jericevich says this about the 2015 team, "Our goal is very simple- to win. Our coaching team, Stevie Swindall and myself are always looking to move forward. We want to play a modern style of rugby which compliments our teams strengths." The Blacks strength this year is speed and ball-handling skill. So, beating the Blacks will require preventing the ball from moving out of their midfield.

Griffins Rugby - This is my pick for the spoiler. The Griffins have been selective in their recruiting of college ruggers and local athletes. However, the Griffins' biggest coup was contracting former Worcester Warrior, Jake Abbott, to play flanker. While Abbott is just one man he was brought on to coach the forwards in practices as well as play. The Griffins are looking for committed players that are willing to play either D1/D1b in order to build the overall depth of the club. They want to play an intelligent, exciting, attacking style rugby and aim to notch a four-try bonus point in every match they play, win or lose. This should push other teams to close those gaps, which in turn opens others. Coach Vassie wants to take the physicality of the average American rugby player and infuse it with a rugby nous.The Griffins spent time this fall getting minutes in matches and focused on developing players who are reflective in their learning to apply their rugby knowledge with the outcome being the team will put points on the board and create wins. Individual accountability looms large on the Griffins with regard to player development and they didn't focus on winning the early matches, merely continuously improving their performance match-to-match. Coach Vassie discovered from these matches that the team's growth from the last season enabled the Griffins to slot some D1b players into the D1 squad without trepidation. As Vassie tells her charges, "No one is bigger than the team and everyone needs to bring something positive to their role. If we do that, collectively we'll achieve the outcome we expect." Last year the Griffins had a rough middle-of-the-road season. In 2015, I expect the Griffins to be the team that no one wants to play.

HARC - HARC's got a new coach, Brett Mills, and it may take Houston some time to cohesively form into Coach Mill's vision of hard-running, breakdown-winning forwards and running rugby that really spreads the field. HARC only returns eight starters form last year's squad. However, Conor Mills made the transition form last year's brief stint with The Woodlands. Conor is one of the best flyhalves in Texas, if not farther afield. Paul Steyn-Benade has finally graduated from Arkansas State and hung his hat in Houston. It should be fun watching Steyn-Benade and Hunter Leland, two former All-Americans, hooking up in the backline! Speaking of former All-Americans, big lock Chris Parker is supposed to return to HARC practices next week. Rounding out the HARC standouts is an absolute truck that can play front-row and back-row, Petey Hepburn. Coach Mills thinks HARC has the forwards to keep up with any team in the conference, but knows he must manage any backline injuries with care. When asked about his prognosis for the season, Mills stated, "We need some early success and if we can achieve that, then I think we can have an extremely successful season. We want our players to enjoy the game and absolutely focus on being prepared both mentally and physically each week and if that happens we will have all done our job and results will come." If Coach Mills had rallied more of his former St Thomas and Aggie ruggers to practice and play, then HARC would be a couple of spots north of six in these predictions.

Dallas Harlequins - If anyone told me 15 years ago that I would pick the Quins as a last place team in Texas D1 rugby, I'd thought them crazy as a loon. The Quins have a new player/coach. Anthony "Ants" Holder, a Quin many are familiar with on the pitch from his RSL playing days, took the coaching reigns late in the fall. When asked about returning starters from last year, Coach Ants said that "the team has a clean sheet from last year's team." That means that the Quins are in a rebuilding year. Holder reports that five players are coming to the Quins from overseas, though. We have discovered that among them are a prop, lock, flanker and flyhalf from Nelson Bay in New Zealand. Ants also states that several former college rugby players joined the team. The Quins as a developing side will face big challenges. They will require depth in their D1b side, which Coach Ants says needs improvement. This is the reason Holder was brought in, to improve on last year's result and recruit for the future. If the Quins have a soft start to the season, expect them to end strong. The Quins consider themselves a competitive club. They expect their club to win and win well.

These are just the predictions of a rugby-mad pundit from Texas. No doubt many of you will think me daft. If so, tell me why and what your predictions are.

In the end, let's get ready for a great season of D1 rugby in the RRRC!

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