Murfreesboro, TN – Memphis traveled to MTSU on February 23… a perfect day for rugby. Wind was gently blowing from the west with a temperature around 50. The only problem was the pitch which had become a bog. Due to the recent rains, most of the middle and western side of the pitch was spongy and soft, resulting in poor footing. However, the Tigers thought that we could use even the soft pitch to our advantage. The pitch dimensions were in our favor with full 60 meter width.
Top referee Jerry McLemore had the whistle, and thought he has lost a step from his days as a national panel referee, he did an excellent job of controlling the match and letting the players play.
When looking at the size of the MTSU team we knew we needed to make them run. Our plan was to use our speed and agility to make the larger forwards chase us all day long. (And dang, they were big.) Three had played football and were free as seniors to play some rugby before graduation.
Though MTSU scored first, our lads were not deterred. We felt good about our chances and know that we had a shot. MTSU scored again bringing the score to 14 – 0 before we could stop the bleeding. However, it was clear that the bog and fast pace was taking a toll on the larger MTSU players.
MTSU attempted to us the kicking game, but we were able to field and properly counter their efforts. While Kyle Baker was countering from the fullback spot, he opted to set the ruck instead of kicking ahead. Unfortunately, one of the footballers took out his right leg. On sideline evaluation I thought he had broken his femur. This was also the assessment of the trainer. We opted to take him to the hospital for evaluation and treatment.
While I was getting the car, the Tiger forwards moved the ball slowly and carefully down the field with fast rucking and excellent phase play. The MTSU forwards were getting winded and leg weary. As we got close to their line, Ian Curry fed Freddy Hodge the ball from the base of a ruck. Freddy broke three tackles and found himself in the try zone. With presence of mind, he headed for the posts and just got down before he lost his head to a very motivated MTSU player attempting to jar the ball loose. 5 points for Freddy and a conversion by Phil Elliott. However, the ball was blood soaked. Who was bleeding? Freddy. Somehow, he badly cut his hand while breaking tackles. The gash was so deep that he needed to be taken to the hospital for stitches. So off to the hospital I go with Freddy and Kyle.
With 3 minutes left in the half, Phil slots a penalty kick making the score 10 – 14. Not a bad position to be in. We get the breeze in the second half and we trust our speed and agility.
Yes we did! In the sixth minute of the second half, Phil lofted a kick to Thomas Strickland on the wing. Thomas picked the ball up on a dead run and took his points in the corner. Memphis up for the first time 15-14.
The Tigers fight hard with MTSU for 20 more minutes and are holding their own until MTSU picks up the ball on an errant kick. They charge our line but are stopped by Scott Smith by a crushing tackle. However, too many big players are too close to the line. Despite our efforts the MTSU bruisers bash over the line.
MTSU then knew the proper strategy. They were gassed and could not run or chase kicks. They decided to keep the ball and power straight ahead. The Tigers attempted to poach the ball, stop their momentum and do whatever they could to keep MTSU from moving forward, but physics won out. With the ball perpetually in the hands of MTSU, they eventually scored again. We could not mount an offensive attack since we didn’t have the ball. Our players were exhausted from playing defense for too long. We were starting to lose players to injury and everyone was feeling the effects of the punishment.
Despite the punishing attack, the Tigers played with heart to the very end. Doing whatever they could do to control the ball and get back on top. However, it was just not meant to be.
There was no B match due to MTSU being short of players. They were very gracious hosts taking us out to feed us and revive us following the tough match.
Hospital Report: Kyle did not break his leg but suffered a severe thigh bruise. It was so severe that a Dilaudid injection did not help the pain. Freddy got 11 stitches in his hand to close his wound. Both were discharged to return home.
As I interviewed the players and coaches after the match to get a feel for how we played, it was clear that had played our best game of the season. We played the top team in the SIRC north division and we held them close until the very end. In fact, their coach was taken aback by our play and feared that we were going to take the match. We have come a long way this season. We are a better team each week.
With this match, we have finished the first half of the season. We will play each team again and will add Old Storm as a friendly. Five more matches to make this season right. We go to Atlanta this weekend to meet Kennesaw State and Georgia Tech. Four matches in two days. We need all hands on deck for this weekend.