In the coldest day of the year, the Tigers ventured through snow and ice to get to Bowling Green to take on the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers. The sun was up, but the 28 degree cold felt like 5 degrees in the 20 MPH wind blowing hard from the west and straight down the pitch. The players were miserable and the coach was frozen solid on the sidelines. Worse, the Hilltoppers were short two players due to recent injuries. They are rebuilding their club after a few seasons of disarray and asked for a couple of players.
The coach decided that we would loan the Hilltoppers our best players, keeping our developing and future players together to continue to learn how to play with each other. The decision to have the leadership play for the opposition was a lesson for the newer players about the camaraderie of rugby and the spirit of the game. Joshua Campbell from New Zealand and captain of the team was donated along with senior Lee Downing, who has 8 years of playing experience at multiple positions on the pitch.
It was a pleasure having Ryan Phillips in the forwards on this trip. Ryan, completing an internship in Nashville at the State Capitol, has been sorely missed. We hope he’ll make a few more games this year.
At kickoff, the play was very very poor with handling errors and poor participation at rucks. Despite 45 minute warm-up session, the players were clearly not prepared. Tigers were running down hill with the wind at their backs in hopes that we could take care of the scoring early. Despite these advantages, the scoring was difficult. WKU was not bothered by the weather and clearly were itching for a fight. Though they were not thoroughly trained in rugby skills, they were good athletes and disrupted play after play, stole our ball, counter rucked and hassled our back line. The Tiger pack was clearly dominant in scums though the day, but lineouts were challenging in the wind. The blow was so fierce that you had to throw the ball toward the scrum half to get the ball to the jumpers.
After 15 minutes of play, the Tigers finally found a way to handle the ball… and with a skip and loop, winger Anthony Scott sprinted around the corner and found the try line at the northeast flag. The kick was wide… Tigers up 5-0.
However, in only a few minutes, Joshua Campbell showed his rugby skills and carried his WKU jersey to the try line despite the valiant efforts of several Tiger tacklers. Score tied 5-5.
Jonathan Brewi quick tapped a penalty at the 25 and caught the WKU players not back ten. The referee signaled a penalty 15 meters from the posts and almost in the center of the pitch. Coach Cole called for Kian’s law to be respected and Phil chipped in for 3 points. Though Phil only chipped the ball it blew 40 meters (I kid you not!) Tigers on top 8-5.
Tigers rotated donated players and provided Chris Cobb and Willie Lacey to WKU for the last of the first half. The Tigers paid for this decision with Chris scoring his first points of the year on an amazing and powerful run up hill and into the fierce wind. Tigers fall behind 8-10.
Scott Smith missed the match due to dehydration and Jonathan Brewi stepped up to play fullback, a task he took to heart. He was moved to scrum half for the last part of the first half during the player rotation. Just before the half, Brewi slipped a few tackles… made a few hard steps and found his way to the try line in the corner. Tigers up again 13-10.
During the first half of play the Tigers finally warmed up, learned how to play in the wind and gained confidence in their abilities and each other. They huddled together to stay warm during the break and heard from the coach and Joshua, “Tidy up the rucks and control the ball. If we keep the ball, they cannot score.”
Second half we had to learn to run up hill and into the wind. Early in the second half Justin Walden, captain, took a hard hit just above his knee which gave him a permanent limp for the remainder of the game. Coach considered putting ice on it, but there was a stiff freezing wind that did the job. Justin chose to stay and work it out.
As the Tigers were marching up the field, Anthony Scott, loaned to WKU and wearing red, fielded a kick and sprinted 60 meters down the southern sideline Brewi, back at fullback dragged him down at the 5 meter line. Following a scrum, WKU found the try line, to give them 15 points, but those were their last points for the day.
Kentucky used the wind to their advantage gaining 40 to 50 meters on penalty kicks and gaining back the Tigers hard fought ground. However, the Tigers consistently won rucks and ran the ball up the hill time after time, keeping the pressure on WKU.
With 25 minutes left to play in the match, the Tigers fitness began to show. Brewi quick tapped a penalty and dished to Joshua who scored under the posts. Phil converted to bring the score to 20-15. The backs were clearly enjoying a chance to handle the ball despite the wind and Willie got free to run 60 meters and score. The kick was blown off line and the score became 25-15.
Phil was the next to score with a 40 meter run handled by multiple players including Josh and Brewi, with some nice inside steps and each taking the ball at pace. 30-15
Justin Hale stood fillback for half the match to give Tarek some time and did an admirable job handling kicks and managing the defense. Standing on the goal line with time running out, he and Walden switched positions. The forwards produced the ball from a ruck and Brewi went weak, stepped hard inside and skipped the ball out to Hale who broke three tackles and took the ball 80 meters up hill to place it beneath the posts. Phil chipped in two and the referee, with whistle frozen in his mouth, had had enough. Final score 42-15.
There was a lot to be excited about this match. The Tigers improve with every match. Each brings its own challenges and the players continue to improve. There are so many good players on this team it makes selections increasingly more difficult. There were non-starters who were excellent in their play, including Adam Hairston, Simren and Chris Tapp. Thomas got his first start at hooker and played admirably.
The backs were successful in running the ball and enjoyed it immensely. The forwards figured out some issues around the rucks and ball control improved through the match. Good ball was produced for the backs and they proved that they were up to the challenge.
WKU hosted a nice party and commented that, though they lost, they really enjoyed the match. The play was tough, but fair and the Tigers embodied the spirit of the game on and off the pitch. The coach was very proud of his boys.
We will take these lessons forward as we prepare for a much tougher match against SIU in two weeks.
Man of the Match with 10 points for the Tigers and 5 for the Hilltoppers was – Joshua Campbell
Special thanks to Justin Walden for a good job as Captain and Phil Elliott as co-capptain. Also, thanks to those who donated time to WKU, including Joshua, Lee Downing, Chris Cobb, Willie Lacey, Anthony Smith, Ryan Phillips and Simren.