The men’s draw is filled to the brim with top tier talent and there could be a strong case made for each pool being labelled the pool of death. With every team, bar two, having played in the National Championship Tournament before teams know what a grueling weekend lies ahead of them and it promises to make for an enthralling two days of rugby.
The 2018 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Championship kicks off this weekend at 10am on August 11 at the Baker Athletic Complex, in New York City. For those who can't make it out to the games, coverage will be provided by Flo Rugby.
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The Denver Barbarians have been one of the most threatening teams throughout the history of sevens in America. The Barbarians have finished fourth twice, third 5 times and have come second on 8 separate occasions, however, first place has always eluded them. They'll like their chances to get the monkey off their shoulder this year, as they've already broken a championship drought early this year when they won the Division II National Championship in fifteens. Their hot form this year and reputation would be enough to make them favorites any year, but when looking at their roster which includes a host of collegiate sevens national champions. They have the talent and they have the championship pedigree, only thing left to see is if they can put it together for a full tournament.
Mystic River Rugby:
Two Division I Fifteens National Championships in the last three years have found their way into the hands of Mystic River, and they'll be hoping to add more silverware to the cabinet this weekend. The men from Massachusetts, finished second in the Northeast, qualifying behind the formidable Old Blue, but if history is on their side they could be in for a big weekend. The Last time that Mystic won the fifteens championship they recorded their most successful 7s tournament to date, finishing third overall. With a roster filled from top to bottom with talent and still on a championship high, they could wrangle their way into another podium finish.
Atlanta Old White:
It's been a long wait for Atlanta Old White. As a product of winning the earliest, and shortest, qualifying season of any of the regions, the men from the peach state have been able to ready themselves for the big stage for over two months. While some may argue that this could lead to rust developing, it can also help players recover from nagging injuries and let some of the nagging injuries dissipate. This will be their eighth trip to nationals, having previously recorded a best finish of 6th. It will be a tough road for them to improve upon it this year, but with a healthy well synchronized squad they'll have a strong chance.
Belmont Shore Gold:
Finishing off Pool A is Belmont Shore Gold. The Gold, who received their bid to nationals courtesy of their counterparts, Belmont Shore Rugby's performance at the Western Open. However, they are more than worthy of being at this event by their own merrit, as they only missed out on the second qualifying seed by one point to the Santa Monica Dolphins. Belmont Shore Gold is not a team to be taken lightly and will certainly make life difficult for those sharing Pool A with them.
Coming in from the Emerald City, Washington Athletic will be the sole representative of the Pacific North at the championships this weekend. They arrive via winning the Pacific North Championships, after an enthralling encounter with Life West. A core of their squad come from Central Washington University, one of the preeminent programs in college rugby. While they may not have all been at the University at the same time, they'll be used to the same systems and have a familiarity and faith with one another. They are one of the most exciting teams in the tournament and you can guarantee that the score board will be ticking over when they are on the field.
Another team that made the tournament thanks to their performances in their region's championship tournament is Metropolis Rugby. Metropolis won the Midwest after an exhilarating qualifying season that saw them win every event through the entirety of their 7s schedule. This will be their 7th foray into the nationals, and they are primed for a deep run. They are led by two Major League Rugby players in Joeli Tikoisuva and Ratu Peceli Rinakama, who both play for NOLA Gold. These scintillating players will be integral to getting the platforms set on both sides of the ball. Another important note to make about Metropolos is that nine of the thirteen players on their roster are under the age of 25, which bodes well for the upcoming years.
Santa Monica Dolphins:
This weekend marks the fifth consecutive year that the Santa Monica Dolphins have made it into the final sixteen teams in the country. In the past they've had a mixed bag of success, mustering up a third-place finish but that was nearly thirty years ago. In their more recent history, while being a constant presence, they have not necessarily been a constant threat. In their last four appearances, they have finished 11th on two occasions and 10th the other two. This year that could be set to change. Littered with foreign as well as promising young domestic players, they have a roster with the potential to go deep. However, through the qualifiers they lacked regularity. If they are to make a genuine turn of it they will need to be switched on a consistent from the first whistle until the last.
New Orleans Rugby:
Another beneficiary of the Open System is New Orleans, who thanks to Dallas Rugby's effort in the Eastern Open, were able to claim the second seed in the Red River. New Orleans played its first season in the Red River this year, after having previously competed in the South. The men from the Big Easy made an almost immediate impact when they won the second qualifier. However, while they are a team seemingly overflowing with potential they are still relatively unproven and have not shown their true colors. Inconsistency has plagued them through the year, and perhaps the biggest cause of that has been their depth. New Orleans used a rotation over the course of the season and have experimented frequently. Going into the weekend they have locked in their squad and it has a slew of NOLA Gold players from the MLR as well as back to back seven collegiate national championship MVP, Nick Feakes. For as unpredictable New Orleans have been, the one thing for certain about them is a lack talent won't be what stops them from advancing.
Old Blue of New York:
Playing at their home stadium this weekend is, the first seed out of the Northeast, Old Blue of New York. They have had a memorable season thus far going undefeated in their four qualifying tournaments; and now they have placed themselves in a position to make a serious lunge at claiming their 3rd sevens title. They have an impressive roster littered players from Rugby United New York, who will enjoy their first season in the MLR next year. One of their star players this weekend will be Gavan D'Amore-Morrison who has one of the most impressive rugby resumes in the tournament. Coming into the national championship undefeated automatically makes Old Blue one of the favorites, but when you add in the home crowd support it could be what pushes them over the edge.
Pool C is spoilt with impressive contenders, and the Dallas Reds may be a lot of the pundit's dark horse pick to walk away with the Emil Signes Cup. The Reds had one of the most impressive qualification seasons out of any team this weekend. In their first qualifier both teams they submitted into the tournament made it to the championship rounds. Followed by an immense showing at the Eastern Open, which guaranteed their spot in the championships. After the hot start to their qualifying season, they have since cooled off. A key to their success this weekend will be the play of standout D'Montae Noble. Noble has been a sensation at the Kutztown University since he stepped onto campus, and this summer returned to the state where he grew up to continue plying his craft. He is the youngest player on the squad by three years, but despite his youth he is still one of the leaders of the team. The Reds will be an exciting team to watch, and one worth paying close attention to as the tournament develops.
The biggest surprise entry into the National Championship, is the Cleveland Academy. Cleveland, who in their first year as a club claimed the final seed from the Midwest, after coming second in their regional championship. What makes their qualification surprising is the fact they had never found themselves in the championship round of any kind during the preceding Midwest tournaments. Heading into the Midwest Championships, every championship game of the Midwest qualifiers had been between Metropolis and the Chicago Lions, and many didn't expect any deviation from the script. When you take a look at their roster, their qualification is a lot less surprising. They are filled with local talent, and five of their players played together at Notre Dame College. Playing together in one of the best college programs in the country will create an inherent chemistry and understanding between players. They are also helped by having a capped Tongan player, Sio Vaiangina amongst their ranks. It is hard to tell how far they will make it in the championship, but one thing is for certain- they are full of surprises.
Kansas City Blues:
The third seed from the Frontier region, and perennial contender, the Kansas City Blues, round out Pool C. The Blues have had a see-sawing season. After a disappointing showing in the opening round of qualification they looked to have got themselves back on track in the second qualifier before extreme weather cut the tournament short. Entering the final qualifier, they were confident in their chances to put it all together but it wasn't to be and they fell to fourth. Despite their qualification results, they are a team that has a strong pedigree in sevens, as they finished second only two years ago and third two years prior to that. If there is a team that knows what it takes to make it deep into the championship rounds it's the Blues.
Belmont Shore Rugby:
Three time National Champions, and Western Open winners, Belmont Shore will be looking to add their fourth title this Sunday. It has been a year of highs for the men from Southern California, after they fell agonizingly short of claiming the Division I Men's Fifteens title this year, they now have a shot at retribution in the shorter format. They tore through qualifying and come into the tournament as one of the hottest teams in the country. With a bevy of experienced players and a strong coaching staff, Belmont won't be letting anything get out of their sights. Expect Belmont Shore to be one of the most clinical and precise teams in their execution this weekend.
Year One in the Frontier Region proved to be a success for Bulldog Rugby, as they finished in second place behind the Barbarians. Bulldog burst onto the Frontier scene with a comprehensive performance in the Championship match of the first qualifier, dispatching of the Barbarians with ease. Their chances at winning the top seed in the Frontier took a hit in the second qualifier when extreme weather hindered their ability to make up for a slow start in the pool stages. They were back to contending form in the final qualifier, but they fell two points shy of beating the Barbarians once again. Bulldog has recruited heavily from college, including four members of the Lindenwood sevens team that won both the Collegiate National Championships and the CRCs. With only two players over the age of 24 on their squad, they are easily the youngest team at Nationals and it will be interesting to see whether or not that proves to be an advantage or a hindrance during the tournament.
Beltway Elite return to the national championship for the second consecutive year, as they try to improve upon their fourteenth placed finish last year. Beltway had one of the most captivating qualification seasons, as they were locked in a fierce tussle with the Schuylkill River Exiles for all four tournaments. It wasn't until the final whistle blew in their final qualifier that they knew for certain they were going through. The men from the Mid-Atlantic have proven to be resilient and a battle tested team, but coming into Nationals is another beast, entirely. They have a tough pool to get out of and will need to rely on their experiences from earlier this season if they are to make it into the top eight on Sunday.
New York Athletic:
One of the most storied clubs in fifteens, in New York Athletic (NYAC), rounds out Pool D as the third seed from the Northeast. NYAC has an extensive list of trophies in their cabinet but one that still eludes them to this day is the sevens national championship. This marks only their eleventh entry and their first since 2014. Throughout the season they were edging back and forth with Mystic River over who would claim the second seed in the Northeast, as Old Blue continued to be a class above everyone else. Eventually NYAC had to settle for third, but they are the most dangerous third seed from a region in the tournament. Led by their outstanding fly-half, Alex Hodgkinson NYAC has a potent attack and can move the ball sharply and quickly across the field causing headaches for those who have to face it. If they are to make it further than their previous best of 11th, look for Hodgkinson to be one of the contributing reasons to their success.