Hampden-Sydney College Tigers v. James Madison University (Developmental) Dukes
45 (7 T, 5 C) – 24 (4 T, 2 C) (Win)
HARRISONBURG, VA – Hampden-Sydney College’s Rugby Football Club made the trek to Harrisonburg for its second match of the fall 2018 season. Madison’s Development team is a bit hard to prepare for. As with all developmental sides, their quality depends on the personnel of the two teams above them, the varsity and junior varsity sides. We know they’ll be athletic, but we’re never quite certain how good they will be at rugby until the match is underway. This is our third match against them in the four fall seasons I’ve been coaching with Hampden-Sydney, the previous two games were decidedly not in our favor, 12-56 in 2015, and a more than 60 point loss in 2016. I knew we had grown and I believed we had improved as a team, but I went into this game with plenty of trepidation. I mostly wanted our side to play up to their potential; they did not disappoint.
Despite some logistical hiccups associated with bus travel, a home football game at JMU, and a larger-than-normal crowd owing to family weekend, the match got started a tiny bit late (about five minutes). Our side, however, was not really there until about ten minutes into the match. We were slow getting set up and we had only twenty minutes to warm up on the field, with the delayed kickoff. Madison, on the other hand, was ready to go.
Hampden-Sydney received the opening kick, taken by captain and 8man Lawson Omer, who was tackled high for a penalty on the opening tackle. The Tigers kicked to touch and set up a lineout. Prop Chris De Salvo took the ball in the air and lock Jonathan Abkemeier crashed into the Dukes line. Madison turned the ball over when the Tigers were slow to arrive in the ruck. Madison worked the ball to the near side of the field, throwing it forward around the 22m. The Tigers won their scrum but knocked the ball on while attempting a skip. The Dukes won their scrum and began their attack. At the first ruck, flanker Chris Beattie turned the ball over for the Tigers and took the ball up field in counter-attack. His offload to scrum-half Brennan Vaught, however, was knocked on, giving the Dukes a scrum on the 50m line. They won their scrum but handled the ball sloppily, allowing Vaught to tackle their scrum-half as he passed the ball out. Madison took the ball off the bounce and crashed the ball inside with their first center. Two Tigers rushed into this ruck—contrary to our usual defensive strategy—and created an overload for the Dukes, their flyhalf, outside center, and wing against our wing and our fullback. The flyhalf drew the wing and offloaded to the outside center, who broke the tackle and went in for the score during the fifth minute. The kick was good and Madison had an early 0-7 lead.
The Tigers answered quickly. The kick restart was knocked on by the Dukes, giving the Tigers a scrum about thirty meters from the Madison try line. The Tigers won their scrum; Brennan Vaught picked the ball and ran to the strong side of the formation before passing to the backs. Fly-half Gray Breeden passed to center Lucas Blankenship who saw the gap in the Dukes’ line and ran through, offloading to wing Scott Bowman twenty meters from the try line. Bowman cut back inside toward his support and was tackled about five meters from the line. The Tiger backs quickly won the ruck and Vaught passed out of the ruck to 8man Lawson Omer who ran behind the ruck toward the weak side, cutting inside as he did so, breaking two tackles into the try zone. Vaught’s kick was no good, but the Tigers had cut the lead to two, 5-7.
The Dukes replied quickly, as well. The Tigers took the kick and worked through three phases before turning the ball over at the ruck for a lack of support. The Dukes had much the same fate, three phases and a turnover at the ruck. In the ensuing ruck, a Tiger player was offside as the ball was turned over. Madison, with a penalty advantage, decided to kick and test the Tiger defense. Our deep coverage was caught off-guard by this kick which bounced near the right upright on the try line and into the try zone. A Madison player had been running on and downed the ball before a Hampden-Sydney player could get to it. In the tenth minute, the Dukes scored their second try of the day, like the first, without a tremendous amount of effort. The kick was good and Madison extended its lead, 5-14.
At this point, the match was not going particularly well for the Tigers. Yes, they had created a try off of a scrum and one phase of play, but whenever they had held the ball for longer than that, they had lost possession at the ruck. Madison, on the other hand, was playing well through their mistakes and seemed to be able to flick a switch and score tries without much effort. Defensively, the Tigers were tackling too high in general and were “catching” Madison players as they crashed the line. There were definitely signs that we could compete with this team and that we could exploit our talents to create scores, but it didn’t look like the execution was going to be there. The Hampden-Sydney team that played Richmond two weeks prior couldn’t beat this Madison team, and I was worried that was what we had.
I was wrong. On their ensuing possession, the Tigers played their defensive strategy: allow the Dukes to maintain possession but cut off their ability to move forward with it. They would have to keep committing forwards to the rucks to keep possession and rely on better play with their backs. This forced Madison to execute and beat our backs with better running and passing, something they struggled to do. On attack, the Tigers also began executing better. Mounting pressure from quick recycling led to a penalty at the ruck. They lost advantage by taking the ball into touch but were awarded the penalty near the middle of the field about thirty meters out. The Tigers podded and Vaught played the ball to prop Chris De Salvo who drew two defenders and made the quick offload to 8man Lawson Omer, who was running on, and who went in nearly untouched for his second try of the season (and game) in the twenty-first minute. Vaught’s kick was good and the Tigers had pulled within two, 12-14.
The Tigers were executing their game plan effectively and the Dukes were finding it difficult to move the ball when they could get possession. Tiger penalties, generally aggressive and at the ruck, were the primary cause of Madison’s ability to generate offense in the remainder of the first half. Even then, it sometimes worked against them. The Tigers conceded a penalty for offsides near midfield and the Dukes did little with it, bringing the penalty back to the original mark. They kicked to touch and set up the lineout, but their inability to execute it—despite numerous warnings from the referee—resulted in a penalty to the Tigers. Chris De Salvo was once again the target for the pop pass off the restart and he barreled forward over midfield. Quick recycling at the ruck saw the ball go through lock Conor Cusick’s hands to flanker Chris Beattie, who beat his immediate man and was off to the races. Two fend offs, one at the 22m and one at the 5m, found him crossing the try line in the thirty-second minute for his first try as a Hampden-Sydney tiger. Vaught’s kick was good and the Tigers took their first lead of the day, 19-14.
The Tigers mishandled the kick restart and gave the Dukes a scrum right on the Tiger 22m. Madison won their scrum and kept possession through the first phase. On the second phase, however, they knocked the ball on, giving the Tigers a scrum just inside their own 22m. Hampden-Sydney won its scrum and Vaught took the ball out of the scrum, running toward the strong side of the field before passing the ball to Breeden, who ran a little out and switched back inside to Blankenship. Lucas caught the ball at approximately the gain line and broke the tackle of their fly-half, who was just barely out of position. The remainder of the Dukes defenders either had not come across the field yet or, like their open-side flanker, had overrun the cutback. At midfield, twenty-eight meters into his run, Blankenship fended off the Dukes fullback and worked toward the wide side of the field, away from the backside defenders. He cut inside of the first of these at the Dukes 22m and continued his eighty-two meter run to the try zone, being tackled just as he was reaching the try line. Blankenship’s try came in the thirty-sixth minute and, with Vaught’s successful conversion, gave extended the Tigers’ lead to twelve, 26-14.
It would not be the final points of the half, however. The Tigers once again mishandled the kick restart—this time by not fielding it in the air but off the bounce—and struggled to do something useful with the ball, eventually passing it forward before getting it into touch. The Tigers, however, won the Dukes’ scrum by pushing it back and wheeling it to the right. Omer picked the ball and took it to the weak side, offloading in the tackle to Vaught. The Tigers turned the ball over in the ruck, but Madison was not much more productive with the ball, working through two phases before dropping the ball on the ground to be fielded by De Salvo, who set a clean ruck. Vaught moved the ball to Blankenship, who again broke the line and offloaded in a tackle to wing Mason Sale, who received the ball just the Dukes’s side of midfield. He was tackled at the 10m line, but not held down, so he got back on his feet and kept running. He was again tackled at the 22m line, but once again not held, so he got back on his feet and kept running. He was tackled a third time just as he was crossing the try line. He scored his first try of the season in the 40th minute. Chris Beattie took the conversion kick and was successful. At halftime the Tigers led 33-14.
The Tigers were in pretty good control of things as the first half ended and hoped to maintain that control through the second half. They got off to a good start by scoring the first points of the second half in the 44th minute. Madison fielded the kick restart cleanly and worked the ball with their backs across the field. Pressure eventually resulted in a Tiger turnover, but the ball was taken into touch. The Dukes won their lineout (their first successful lineout of the match) and kicked the ball to clearance. The Tigers lost their lineout when the throw went errantly wide, but were able to force the Madison player who fielded it into touch. The Tigers went with a short throw at the line, winning possession and working through several quick-succession crash plays. On the third phase, a Madison player entered the ruck from the side, giving the Tigers a penalty mere meters from the try line. Vaught took the kick quickly and found Breeden who took an aggressive line across the field and cut inside to find the try line as he was being tackled. This was his first try of the season. Vaught’s kick was good and the Tiger lead grew once more, now 40-14.
Madison’s third try of the game came seven minutes later in the fifty-first minute. Madison had been applying pressure and keeping the ball securely in the Tiger half, sometimes inside the 22m. After a long phase of comparatively sloppy play, the referee awarded a penalty to Madison for dissension (talking too much or telling the referee how to referee, basically). This gave them a penalty near the middle of the field about fifteen meters from the Tiger try line. Their penalty play was stopped about the five meter, but it turned quickly into a maul, which Madison eventually pushed over the line. The kick was no good, but Madison had cut the lead some, 40-19.
The Tigers’ final points of the day came nearly eleven minutes later in the sixty-second minute. Keeping the possession Madison’s half of the pitch and the pressure up with good continuity, the Tigers had two try-scoring chances taken away. The first time the referee ruled he couldn’t see the try scored and then saw the ball loose and covered by another Tiger player. He ruled that since he couldn’t see the try, he also could not see that the ball was knocked on, so he awarded a 5m scrum to the Tigers. They won their scrum, but mishandled the link between Omer and Vaught, knocking the ball on and putting the flanker offside. Madison kicked the ball to touch and won its lineout, working the ball across the wide side of the field. The Tigers eventually turned the ball over in the third phase, but lost the ball forward in the ensuing tackle. The Dukes won their scrum but turned the ball over with bad handling, knocking the ball on between the fly half and the center. Lucas Blankenship scooped the loose ball up and offloaded to center Oliver Holt who ran forward but also lost the ball forward as he attempted to cross the try line. The referee brought both sides back to the first knock and awarded a scrum to the Tigers. They once again won their scrum and Omer picked the ball from the back to take it weak. As the flanker closed in, he passed wide to Sale, who was running on. Sale was untouched as he dove across the line for his second try of the day. Vaught’s kick was no good, but the Tiger lead was again twenty-six, 45-19.
The final points of the match came in the final minutes. Madison had made a number of substitutions to get fresh legs on the pitch. Despite this, they continued to struggle moving the ball in open play against the Tiger defense. The Tigers were awarded a scrum near their own 22m line. They won the scrum cleanly, but the playside flanker had broken off early, Vaught passed to Breeden, who switched inside to Blankenship—just like his try in the first half—but the referee called an immediate penalty for unbinding and obstruction. The Dukes took the kick quickly and worked two passes to the far side, where they outflanked the Tiger defense. The kick, however, was not good. The final score ended 45-24.
Score line aside, there was a lot to celebrate in this match. We cut our number of handling errors down tremendously. The Dukes had only seven scrums on the day, one of which was a restart after the referee stopped play for an injury. Of those seven scrums, we managed to steal one. Even when the Dukes were winning their scrums, they were getting pushed back; this is an important step in upping our game as we prepare for postseason play. At the lineout, we were once again dominant. The Dukes had ten lineouts on the day, five from penalties kicked into touch and five from tackling a Tiger player into touch. Madison didn’t win a single one of their lineouts until they made adjustments for the second half. Two of their lineouts were forfeited to the Tigers in the form a free kick and a penalty for being disorganized and violating the law on joining the lineout. On our side, we won all thirteen of our own scrums, even though two of them were sloppy and hurt our ability to use the ball we had won. We lost two lineouts on uncharacteristically bad throw-ins (the “match” balls were very slick, being old practice balls). We do need to work on our defensive lineout to keep it dominant moving forward.
This was a big win for this side. For the veterans, especially our seniors, this is the only time in their four years we’ve managed to hang in with this team. Beating them was an even longer shot. For the rookies, they’ve now seen this side bounce back from being down and almost out of a match. I’m proud of the win, no doubt, but prouder still of how they played.
Madison was gracious enough to field a B-side for the day. We got much-needed experience for a lot of our younger players. There were great individual efforts, but the side didn’t really come together much, in part due to inexperience, but also in part to the shorter time.
The Tigers return to action on Homecoming, October 20, 2018, when they will host the Longwood University Lancers. Game time is 11am at Ellis Rugby Pitch. We hope to see you there!