In an epic second half comeback The MCRC overcame a high flying UVM side 20 – 14 (halftime score 3 – 14 to UVM).
This young team may have truly found themselves today as their own team – stepping boldly out of the vast shadow of their national championship winning predecessors…how great is that?! The MCRC started out flat and struggled to put points on the board in the first half against a strong, physical UVM side but the second half brought about a resilient display of pure, unadulterated courage as Middlebury fought back with tries from winger Withers ’11, fullback Leanos ’10 and flanker Berriman ’12 sealing the deal. Fly-half Sirkia ’12.5 converted 1 of the 3 conversions adding to his first half penalty kick.
For the first time this year The MCRC unveiled their signature Haka, led by forwards captain Chris Mutty’09.5; however, it was UVM who started the game on the offensive.
Opening: UVM received the kick-off and quickly spread the ball in the opposite direction – attacking a very flat Middlebury defense. Some smart and fortuitous defensive work forced the turnover on this opening play and Middlebury cleared the early danger. Though not yet as potent as Middlebury would like, their counterattacking and tactical kicking were greatly improved from last weekend.
Forwards: The Middlebury pack only featured one positional change from the BC game (usual blindside flanker Rowan Kelner ’12 moving to 8th man, switching with Bills ’11, both players adept at either position). The “small” Midd pack worked hard all game and held their own in the scrums, even dominating UVM’s bigger forwards on a few occasions, only getting wheeled once, unlucky to not have a wheel called in their favor and never being significantly driven back. Further credit to the Middlebury pack for anticipating and preparing for the usual dominance of the UVM lineouts led by Jack Bates (son of Middlebury grad and UVM coach Charlie Bates): Middlebury maintained 90% of their own ball on lineouts – a perfect retention rate ruined not by steals but a significant breeze and handling errors. Although UVM did not dominate lineouts in the air their blitzing defense off the lineout caused major trouble for the Canadian half-back pairing of Song ’13 and Sirkia ’12 (perhaps a hint of off-sides on some of those blitzes? Or the UVM loose trio is just that quick and will cause trouble throughout New England). Middlebury will have to work on their timing in the lineout and protecting their playmakers but former hooker Joe “Diesel” Della Rocca ’07 will be pleased to hear that his trademark hooker pass has been brought back into the artillery.
Backs: Conversely, The MCRC back line featured several changes with usual 9 man Sirkia ’12.5 starting at fly-half, last week’s back-up 9 man Song taking the helm, captain Cahill moving back to the wing from a short stint at outside center and Mwaki ’11 starting at outside – the introduction of the big Kenyan adding size and power running to the smallest Middlebury back line this decade. Cmejla ’11 and Harrison ’11 started on the bench. Mwaki made his presence felt early, bulldozing a UVM center in the fashion of legendary Loseke Pascal Losame ’07. Beyond this and an almost expertly executed up and under from Cahill, the first half saw very little from a flat Middlebury back line. To make matters worse the Kenyan impact center took a knock and had to call it a day after 30 mins – classmate Cmejla taking his place. Thankfully, the injury is unlikely to keep him out of next week’s Norwich game.
Penalties: Both sides coughed up penalties galore; off-sides and diving over making for sloppy breakdown situations usually in UVM’s favor (boosted by aggressive counter-rucking) as Middlebury struggled to deliver clean ball to their fly half and the UVM back line blitzed consistently. The Catamounts early pressure resulted in a penalty 5 meters from the Middlebury goal line, from where they scored on a quick tap though Middlebury was left questioning the validity of the “tap” as the ball did not appear to leave the UVM player’s hands. Unfortunately, the ref had his back to the play and deemed the play legal, awarding the try. Tap or no tap the Middlebury defense should have been more alert to the threat and should certainly not have let the UVM player run uncontested towards the posts to set up an easier conversion. 0 – 7 UVM after the easy kick. Adding insult to the scoreline the immensely confident UVM side jogged back to their half imitating Middlebury’s call of “Zero zero” in response to a question of the scoreline. Having heard this staged call & response for the past 3 years UVM were more than ready to throw it right back in Middlebury’s face after such a strong start. Still, much of their hard work was continually being undone by a lack of discipline especially in defending quick tap penalties where their players would seek to thwart the danger from an off-sides position. With Harrison on the bench Sirkia had sole kicking duties this afternoon but playing into the wind he deemed only one penalty within striking range and he slotted the easy 3 pointer. 3-7 to UVM.
A Blue resurgence continued as Middlebury sought to capitalize on the quick tap penalties. One outrageous obstruction of a Midd quick penalty looked certain to bring out the first yellow of the day but the ref was forgiving, choosing to offer (another) final warning. Within minutes of this another intentional infringement broke the ref’s patience and UVM were down to 14 men for the final 10 minutes of the half. A resilient display saw the Burlington team not only deny Middlebury scoring any points but they put more points on the board themselves while being a man down: short lineout in the Middlebury half, the UVM fly-half spots the mismatch in the back line’s defense with forwards filling holes, a well timed, angled run, at pace – good night – change of pace, change of direction – rugby is that simple. Poor defending on Middlebury’s part with at least two missed tackles making UVM’s job that much easier. Easy conversion for the extra 2 points: 3 – 14 to UVM (halftime).
Halftime and Middlebury found themselves facing the grave possibility of what could have been their first regular season loss in 11 years. A deserved and contented laugh of satisfaction could be heard from the UVM halftime huddle.
Captain’s call: within 5 minutes of the start of the second half the coaches started warming up a replacement for full back Brendan Leanos ’10 who had had a quiet first half. Something needed to change in the back line and the hope was shifting people around would spark something. However, captain Cahill made the call from the field to keep Leanos on, citing a great counter-kick at the beginning of the half as evidence that the full back should be kept on. Respecting the captain’s wishes the coaches delayed the substitution…with the 20-20 vision of hindsight this was easily the most important call of the day.
Back line: As if on cue, within minutes of his called-off substitution the senior full back, unaware of the proposed change, turned on the fireworks and the whole back line picked up their game with him. In only his second game for the A-side ever and his first competitive game, winger Zach Withers ’11 finished off some sustained Middlebury pressure with a try on the outside – your classic case of getting the ball to the speedster on the wing and telling him to pin his ears back and head for the corner. Sirkia was unable to convert the extra points. 8 – 14 UVM. Withers will count himself unlucky to not have scored a second try in the corner using his speed, an in-and-out turn and pure determination to take him within a few feet of the goal line before being tackled out of bounds.
Leanos, expertly fielding clearance kicks, used a full array of counter attacking moves to put UVM right back onto the backfoot, the piece de resistance being a surging run from the half way line evading no less than 4 defenders before being viciously brought down with a high tackle. No one would have faulted the ref for giving a red card to the culprit and/or awarding a penatly try as Leanos looked poised to score but the ref’s patience prevailed again and the player did not even receive a yellow card for this incredibly dangerous challenge. After having witnessed an earlier illegal and highly dangerous over-the-head flip tackle (no attempt to wrap) go unpunished the Middlebury fans were incensed as emotions boiled over. But it was not the fervor from the sidelines that was making headlines but Leanos as he finally injected some pace and angled running into the Middlebury back line punching a hole into the UVM defense from 15 meters out: TRY TIME! 13 – 14 to UVM. With all the pressure of 11 years of success breathing down his neck the young Sirkia slotted home the already difficult (due to the angle) conversion. Middlebury finally takes the lead 15 – 14.
More indiscipline by the UVM team saw them once again reduced to 14 men – Middlebury took this opportunity to put the game almost out of reach with a hard earned try from flanker Berriman with only a few minutes remaining. Complete exhaustion seemed to overwhelm the Middlebury team after scoring this try, numerous players struggling to get back to their own half, greatly relieved at placing this nail in the coffin but somewhat of a premature celebration when you do the math and remember the resilience of this UVM side. Sirkia misses the kick: 20 to 14 Middlebury.
All UVM needed to cause the biggest upset in DII rugby this year was a converted try and agains the run of play they almost found it in the dying minutes. Rugby is an 80 minute game – if you play hard till the 78th minute and sit back you’ll lose heartbreakers…thank goodness The MCRC is an 80 minute team. Final score 20 to 14 Middlebury.