It is that time of year when the temperatures in the Carolinas start heating up and so does the local sports action. This edition is rugby heavy, so put your scrum cap on, lace up your boots and get ready to get your fill of the barbarian game played by gentlemen.
On April 20th, the wonderful city of Nashville, Tenn., put on their inaugural Music City Cup rugby tournament, hosted by the Nashville Grizzlies. The one-day event consisted of six teams from across the U.S. — the Charlotte Royals, Atlanta Bucks, Nashville Grizzlies, Seattle Quake, Chicago Dragons and the Charleston Blockade. Play started early Saturday morning and every team knew of the grueling day that lay ahead of them. With the possibility of having to play as many as seven games, it would be a war of attrition to make it to the finals.
The Royals started their campaign off against the Atlanta Bucks and a full complement of players to make it through the tournament. However, by the end of their fairly easy 24-5 victory, the Royals lost starting weak prop, Michael Katchur, to a broken leg when he collided with teammate Garrett Jordan while he was being tackled. This would be the theme for the Royals that day because the injury bug struck them almost every game.
Next up for Charlotte was the still newly-formed Charleston Blockade. In this match, the Royals were able to clean up the small mistakes from the previous game and get all the jitters and nervousness out against a team they had recently beaten, which is exactly what they did. The final score was 38-0, led by Colin Howard three-try effort at outside center. Unfortunately, starting scrum half, B.J. Smith, also went down with a broken leg in the second half when he ended up at the bottom of a tackle pile, which was a another huge blow for a team that is short on depth and heavy on inexperience.
There was little time to regroup, with only 15 minutes between round robin games, so the Royals played on, next against the always-formidable Chicago Dragons. Anchored in the backline by a former Charlotte Royal, Thomas Southerland, Chicago looked to run their offensive through him and the rest of their wing players. Charlotte adjusted early and with solid tackling from Zach Anderson and David June, that helped quash any momentum the Dragons tried to garner. By scoring three tries in the first half and one in the first two minutes of the second half, Charlotte was able to withstand a late charge and hold on for a 22-17 win and, more importantly, not sustain another injury.
The last match of the round robin phase was against the Nashville Grizzlies, an experienced team with plenty of pride playing in front of their home crowd. This game was especially testy due to the physical nature of the sport and the familiarity between the two teams. That intensity grew as the score, 9-7, stayed that way throughout, until Charlotte scored on a late penalty kick by Danny Wadsworth, winning 12-7. That meant Charlotte, undefeated thus far, would earn one of the top two seeds with Seattle, who also went undefeated in pool play. But, they also lost two more players to injuries: Branson Brown to a broken rib and Wythe Newberry to a high ankle sprain. The Royals were down to 16 healthy players for the rest of the tournament.
Two games stood between Charlotte and hoisting the championship trophy and they were undaunted by the rash of injuries sweeping through their team. The first game was a rematch with the now three-seeded Chicago Dragons. It was a clash between two evenly matched teams, a repeat of the closest game either of them had played in the tourney. Both teams were beaten up, tired, sore. But, that did not stop either squad from leaving everything they had out on the field for a chance to play in the finals. Chicago was the only team to score a try in the game when Qahhar Davis was able to break free early in the second half and Charlotte was stymied at every point near the goal line. Charlotte lost the game 10-3. Their second string scrum half, Colin Howard, went down with a broken collar bone and their chance at the championship.
The true sign of a great team is how well they can deal with adversity. Do they wither and fade? Do they crumble under the pressure? Do they give up against seemingly insurmountable odds? Or, do they keep trying, pushing, persisting? I have never seen a team go through the tribulations that the Charlotte Royals endured and still keep their focus and excel even as key players kept going down with injury. After losing their fifth player in as many games and another teammate early in game six with a severe ankle sprain, the Royals fought on and in a decidedly one-sided game, beat the Nashville Grizzlies to earn third place and the admiration of all the other teams there because of the circumstances they overcame to achieve it. Earning man of the tournament for Charlotte was Arthur Milne, a strong side flanker, who played every minute of every game and provided leadership well beyond his 23 years.
The Seattle Quake ended the day by beating Chicago for the second time that day, but this time in overtime, to take home the trophy, winning 20-15. They were worthy champions, having not dropped a single game all day and playing with the poise and intelligence of a well-coached, experienced team. These teams will all meet again on Memorial Day in Chicago when the Dragons host their annual tournament during IML weekend, which is sure to be just as fun, if not more so.
But, between those two tournaments, Charlotte invited the Charleston Blockade back up to NC for the second part of their home and home, for the Royals’ big fundraising Prom Dress Match. And, if you’re wondering what that is, it is exactly what it sounds like: 30 grown men, playing rugby in prom dresses!
Despite the visual hilarity of seeing gnarly rugby players wearing something a bit “softer,” the game was still as hard hitting as ever. Both teams took what they learned from the Nashville tournament and used the game as precursor to what they’ll see in Chicago. The game was well played and flowing, with very few miscues or wardrobe malfunctions. But, in the end, Charlotte still has the experience that Charleston sorely lacks and walked away with a win, 64-0. Men of the match for the Royals: Danny Wadsworth, fly half, who scored 27 points on the day, and Jeff Enochs, weakside prop. : :