Article by Chad Wise and Alex Solomon | Originally published at usarugby.org
DES MOINES, Iowa – The 2015 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Men’s Club 7s National Championship kicks off at James W. Cownie Soccer Complex Saturday, Aug. 8, where 16 domestic clubs will fight for the title.
Two years of dominance from Seattle Saracens could end in the Hawkeye State’s first USA Rugby National Championship event. Old Blue of New York, the other 2014 Finalist, and third-place Kansas City Blues will offer a challenge to the field of competitors, one of the strongest set of teams in recent memory.
Seattle Saracens, 1823 Rugby, Charlotte Rugby, Dallas Rugby
With the influence of Fijian great Waisale Serevi, the nearby training facilities of ATAVUS Academy, and a tight-knit group that plays 15s and sevens throughout the year, there is no reason to doubt Seattle’s credentials as the favorite at Club 7s for yet another year. B.C. Division Champions in the long-form version of the game and B.C. Sevens Series victors in the 14-minute version, Saracens brings the cohesion and confidence of a club on track for the dynasty classification. Eagles Mike Palefau and Tim Stanfill fit into a team of near-professionals, while Eric Duechle adds additional fitness from his time at the Olympic Training Center as part of the U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program.
Not to be outdone, 1823 Rugby stormed through Midwest competitions with an undefeated record, Athletes training at Tiger Rugby Academy, a member of USA Rugby’s Olympic Development Academy, include American football converts Aaron Davis and Alex Elkins. Tiger’s fitness and strategic guru, Head Coach Paul Holmes, leads a team that has underachieved in recent years at Club 7s, placing 10th and ninth in 2013 and 2014, respectively. If the upward trend is to continue, 1823 will have to first hurdle Seattle in pool play.
In six appearances at Club 7s in the past 20 years, Charlotte Rugby has only reached the Cup round once, but brings momentum from a strong qualifying campaign in the south. Top points-scorer Matt Hughston, a Men’s Eagles Sevens High Performance Camp attendee, led the team with 17 tries and 30 conversions as Charlotte won Cup championships at Triad 7s, Airborne 7s, Moonshine 7s, and Todd Miller 7s, the South Championship. The team also brings cohesion to Iowa, with 10 of the team’s 12-player travel squad having played rugby in the Charlotte area high school system.
Injuries and schedule conflicts prevented Dallas from performing at its expected standard in the first Red River Rugby Conference Qualifier tournament, but responded with a clinical Cup championship at the second in Fort Worth, Texas. The victory and second-place finish in the third qualifier sealed a place at Club 7s, where Dallas has not played since 1997. In three appearances, the club has not won a single match, but finishing speed from Jon Moore and experience from capped Hong Kong international Rob McDermott are sure to help the team challenge for a spot in the Cup round.
Old Blue of New York, Life West Gladiators, Chicago Lions, Austin Blacks
If not for a last-minute try in the 2014 Cup Final by Seattle’s Rocco Mauer, Old Blue of New York would be entering the field in Iowa as reigning National Champions. The second-place team from a summer ago appears even stronger with a slew of youngsters joining the squad from the college ranks, and its leader gaining valuable experience.
Dave Sitton MVP of the 2013 College 7s National Championships, Dylan Carrion provides another playmaker along with Arkansas State teammate Harry Higgins for the Northeast powerhouse, and field general Nate Augspurger is back in blue after a strong campaign with the Men’s Eagles Sevens.
Life West made a household name for itself by winning the 2015 Club Championships in 15s. Now, the Gladiators look to capture its first title in sevens. Pacific Northwest’s second seed has dangerous runners young and old. Former New Zealand All Black Orene Ai’i is an HBSC World Rugby Sevens Series MVP from a decade ago, while Junior Helu is garnishing international attention at the age of 18.
Chicago has made a habit of reaching the Cup Quarterfinals at Nationals, so the Lions will be disappointed if they fail to advance out of Pool B. After providing a major boost in 2014, Adam and Alex Sandstrom are again in a Lions kit for the summer, and will need to be dynamic to run the club into the Cup competition.
The Blacks got a late start to their sevens season after an inspired playoff run took Austin to the DI National title game in 15s. The disappointment of the team’s hard-fought loss to New York Athletic Club in the Final did not last long, as the Blacks bullied through the Red River competition to punch a ticket to Iowa. Zac Mizell and Patrick Sullivan, no strangers to sevens hardware from their time at Arkansas State, are keys to Austin’s attack.
Kansas City Blues, Mystic River Rugby, Santa Monica Dolphins, Schuylkill River Exiles
Because Iowa does not have a home team in the competition, Kansas City may boast one of the larger cheering sections at James W. Cownie Soccer Complex this weekend. The club, which celebrated its 49th anniversary this spring, has seen success on and off of the field in recent seasons. A regional semifinal appearance in the 15s game preceded the club’s 17-2-1 record in sevens play in 2014-15, which included championships at Heartland 7s and Barbo 7s, Frontier Region qualifiers.
The Frontier Champions have recruited a mix of young and ruthless athletes, such as College 7s National Champion Lindenwood University’s Sebastian Kalm, who has represented Chile at the under-20 level. Captain Ted Mills runs the show, while Walter Elder and Gannon Moore clean up the play on both sides of the ball. Should the Blues make it out their pool, expect them to challenge for at least another top-four finish.
Recently-named Collegiate All-American Zach Bonte of University of California, Los Angeles, highlights a strong lineup for the Dolphins of Santa Monica. In one of the toughest pools of the 2014 competition, Santa Monica fell to New York Athletic Club and Denver Barbarians in pool play before placing in 11th after its sixth match. A Bowl Quarterfinal defeat of 2015 pool mate Schuylkill River may play a mental role in the Dolphins’ third match of day one. The team bonded through a trek to and from Flagstaff, Ariz., for a third-place-match appearance at Flagstaff 7s, and brings the bond formed through 15s and sevens seasons to Des Moines. Keep an eye on Charlie Purdon, whose rugby pedigree has taken him from South Africa to Scotland to the sunny shores of southern California.
Denver Barbarians, Belmont Shore, U.S. Army Selects, Omaha Goats
Many teams have caught up to Belmont Shore in terms of sevens prowess. Still, the boys from Long Beach are as dangerous as any side in the field. Player/coach Peter Sio is a strong leader and still a dangerous runner. After missing the 2014 National Championships due to injury, Eagle Mike Te’o will need to be a playmaking sparkplug for Belmont this weekend.
Like Belmont Shore, Denver is seemingly always in contention for a title in sevens. The Barbarians are once again led by Maximo de Archaval, but this summer the longtime sevens captain has a new toy to play with – Martin Iosefo. The Hawaiian-born center made a consistent impact for the Eagle Sevens during the 2014-15 season. If he and flyer Ke’von Williams can link up, the Barbos could make a run at the Cup Final as they did in 2013.
At full strength, the U.S. Army Selects were too strong for the rest of the Mid Atlantic competition this summer. With capped players such as Will Holder and Ben Leatigaga the Selects are as physically intimidating as they are experienced. Former Olympic Training Center-athlete-turned coach, Andrew Locke, makes for a quality leader out of a group of men trained to lead.
After hanging tough with National participants Denver and Kansas City, as well as the Glendale Raptors, during the summer, the Omaha Goats were a legitimate candidate to fill the boots left behind when the Hawaii Titans were forced to pull out of the tournament. Regularly pushing the Blues and Barbarians to the limits, and pulling off the occasional upset during the Frontier Qualifiers, the Goats are plenty used to facing tough sevens competition, and will not make things easy for the rest of Pool D.