May 15, 2022 – Kennesaw Georgia: The Memphis Tigers 7s team traveled to Kennesaw State University, host of the USA Rugby Collegiate National Championships. This was the first time the Tiger 7s team had played in a national championship, so this was an incredibly special event for the Tigers. The event was televised on NBC Sports which made the week even more special.
The Tigers started on Saturday in pool play against Trinity, our first opponent. Trinity have a strong program with several fabulous athletes. Coach Beck prepped his team, “Make them run laterally. Use the pitch to your advantage. These big fellows cannot keep shape if we work the ball quickly.” (Becks Corollary) The Tigers robbed Trinity of possession by excellent ball movement and using the width of the pitch. After a few trips back and forth on the pitch, the Trinity defense opened up and the Tigers took advantage of the gaps. Virgil Prior scored the first try and Nick Nolen chased a kick through when the defense lost their fullback to score the second try. Conversions by Matt Ravishankar and the final score was 12-0 Tigers.
Second opponent was Valdosta State. This side was bigger than Trinity, but they looked heavier and possibly less fit. Coach Beck, using “Becks Corollary”, challenged the lads to not mix it up with the larger players. “Work the ball and make them run. They cannot play defense forever. Keep the ball moving and wear them down.” The message was taken to heart and the Tigers were excellent at maintaining possession and moving the ball. Coach Beck was right. The defense eventually opened up when fatigue set in and the Tigers exploited. A combination of loops, quick passes and kicks over the top and the Tigers dominated. Tries were scored by Nick, Drew De Sanctis (x2), Virgil and Shane Coleman. Mat and Shane took conversion honors. Subs were employed late and the Tigers lost a little of their composure. Valdosta got a try in by brute force. The final score was Tigers 33, Valdosta State 7.
On Sunday, were to take on Furman, a powerhouse in 7s rugby. If we could beat Furman, we would be in the finals and playing on Television. The lads had been mindful all weekend. Not much horsing around. No shenanigans. These lads were here to win. We had watched Furman play and they were displaying excellent rugby.
This was a very rough battle and the Tigers were forced to defend their try line several times. However, they kept shape on defense, did what they had to do and sure enough, Becks Corollary came true again. The defense cracked and all Virgil needed was a crack and he was gone. They could not handle him. Virgil gets a hat trick in this match and Matt converted. Tigers 19, Furman 7. A big loss was Erron Hubbard. With two minutes to go in the game he received a very late hit away from the ball that drove him into the ground. His side and liver were bruised and he was out for the tournament. He had excelled at scrum half, harassing the opposition, maintaining excellent ball and was a threat with his speed. His loss was terrible.
Well…. We made it to the dance. And everything changed. Now we are in the big stadium with the TV cameras and folks standing around with headsets telling where to go and when to be back. The matches in the stadium are live on TV and everything is timed down to the second. Our handlers kept us informed at each step. We did not have much time to recover from our Furman match and some players never took off their game jerseys. We cooled down almost and then we warmed up. Worked hard on hydration (it was terribly hot that day) and worked Vaseline onto our turf burns. We moved from the practice field to under the bleachers, then into the holding locker room for final words. Coach Becks employed the lads to enjoy the journey. “You are already winners.”, he said. No Tiger team has ever achieved what you have achieved this season. Winning the conference championship and making it to the collegiate national finals was certainly a huge accomplishment, but the Tigers were not finished yet. They were focused on the prize at hand and they were going to fight with all they had left.
We finally get the call to line up. The Tigers line up under the banner at the edge of the field… beside the USC Trojans. 3 minutes to go. The man with the headset stands at the ready as we watch the ladies match wind down. And then he looks at the captains and says it’s time. Holds out his hands and counts down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, and the teams take the field. I cannot believe that we are here.
The Tigers run to the center of the pitch for a final huddle. There is intensity in these fellows that is palpable. We hear the Tiger cheer and they break. Line up and the match is on. The Trojans are formidable, but the Tigers are solid. The match moves back and forth but nobody can take advantage. At the 4-minute mark, Virgil finds a crack in the defense and is through it before the Trojans can react. He flies down the pitch to score under the posts. Matt Converts. The fans are going wild.
The kick-off is perfect but the Trojan smartly leaps into the air and is accidently undercut by a Tiger. A whistle and I know it is bad. I am hoping for a yellow instead of a red. The center ref consults with the AR and they settle on a yellow. Better than a red but still horrible. The Trojans have the upper hand and take advantage scoring two tries under the yellow.
After the half, the Tigers are now at full strength but shaken by the lopsided sore. They get back in the game but the Trojans now have their confidence. They score another try when the defense fails to react fast enough. The Tigers add some subs to bring in some energy. Unfortunately, without Erron Hubbard we are thin on subs. The Tiger composure is clearly shaken and things slowly unravel. The Tigers fight to the end and make a good showing but time is cruel and the Tigers fall to USC 29-7.
The Tigers shake hands, congratulate the Trojans and head to the sidelines to a rousing round of applause. Clearly the fans like the Tiger heart and appreciated their effort. The lopsided score did not reflect the athleticism that the Tigers demonstrated.
The Tigers were certainly sad about the loss, but after while realized that this Cinderella story was an amazing ride. Now that we have been to the dance, we know what it is like. When we get there again, we’ll be a bit more ready for the pressure of finals competition. Tiger Nation is very proud of the Tigers this year. The lads have a lot to be proud of.
Tiger of the National Championship Tournament is Virgil Prior. He will be honored at the post season social.
Many thanks to Tiger Rugby Nation for your financial support during our spring and post season run. Without your financial support, we would not have been able to compete. If you still have a few coins that you can share (Donate here), we have some remaining expenses we need to cover. Thanks for your support and anything you do to spread the good word about Tiger Rugby.
Photos by Stacy Scott. Thanks so much to you Stacy for covering the Tigers this year.
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