Emirates National Club 7s Championships Preview
Written By: Adam McQueen
New York City will play host to the 2018 USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7’s National Championship this weekend, bringing the competition back to the East Coast for the first time in sixteen years.
The 3500-seat Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium in the Baker Athletics Complex at Columbia University will be the primary venue for the 32 men’s and women’s teams vying to etch their names onto the Emil Signes Cup.
During last year’s event, the Rugby Utah Selects delivered a scintillating last gasp victory over the Denver Barbarians 22-21 in arguably the greatest final to date, securing back-to-back championships in the men’s side. Meanwhile, newcomers Seattle Atavus brought the title to the Pacific Northwest for the first time ever in the women’s side, posting an unblemished 6-0 record.
Although the sevens format is an unpredictable spectacle, one thing is certain – there will be new teams lifting the respective trophies come August 12th. Rugby Utah Selects will not be defending their title, while Seattle Atavus return to the tournament under new branding as the Washington Athletic Club. So what can we expect to see in New York City, and who will be coming home with silverware?
Pool A Pool B Pool C Pool D
Denver Barbarians Washington Athletic Old Blue of New York Belmont Shore Rugby
Mystic River Rugby Metropolis Rugby Dallas Rugby Bulldog Rugby
Atlantic Old White Santa Monica Dolphins Cleveland Academy Beltway Elite
Belmont Shore II New Orleans Rugby Kansas City Blues New York Athletic
With Utah out of the picture, the men’s draw is now wide open. The top-seeded Denver Barbarians, who are making their record 24th appearance, will be eager to get over their finals hump. The Barbarians recently took home the Division II XVs National Championship, but they are yet to win the Emil Signes Cup in their eight appearances in the finals.
However, they are not the only team in Pool A with championship pedigree. Mystic River Rugby enter the competition on the heels of winning their second Division I XVs National Championship in three years. With the likes of flyer Malik Wilbon, Mystic River are a contender to translate their XVs success to the sevens format. Meanwhile, Atlanta Old White dominated their Southern qualifying region and have a hefty Life University contingent in their numbers.
In Pool B, Washington Athletic will return as heavy favourites to reach the knockout stages after an impressive third place showing in their inaugural appearance in 2017. The team has had significant representation from MLR champions Seattle Seawolves – if they can regain the services of William Rasileka, Peter Tiberio, and Shalom Suniula then it would be hard to bet against them reaching the finals.
Meanwhile in Pool B, New Orleans RFC return to the championship after transitioning into the Red River qualifying region during their year-long hiatus. New Orleans will also be buoyed by the presence of several professionals from the NOLA Gold, including playmaker Taylor Howden.
Santa Monica return as Pacific South #2 seeds. However, it has been the impressive display from Metropolis Rugby during qualifying that has turned heads. Their local talent – primarily based out of Minneapolis – have run rampant this summer, winning every competition to date.
While many teams have travelled across the country for the event, the Old Blue of New York are happily playing on home soil in their own backyard. Home field advantage will certainly energize the Old Blue in Pool C, but truthfully, their string of performances this season speaks for itself. Led by the sumptuous footwork of Connor Wallace-Sims – whose dazzling skill has already gone viral – the New Yorkers waltzed through undefeated in all four legs of the most difficult qualifying region. They are currently ranked #2 on USA Clubs 7s power rankings and are my pick to earn their first sevens national championship since 2005.
Tournament newbies Cleveland Academy are this year’s wild card as the first Cleveland based team to enter the national championship since 1998.
Cleveland endured middling results throughout their qualifying campaign, yet they upset the apple cart in the Midwest Championship by earning the second and final seed over the likes of national championship regulars Chicago Lions and Cincinnati Wolfhounds. Cleveland are also the only team this year to beat Metropolis Rugby, adding to the intrigue of their 'boom or bust' capabilities.
Dallas Rugby will also take part in Pool C, courtesy of their Eastern Open victory in June. Dallas have been handed a slightly easier draw than the ‘pool of death’ they faced last year, and are an under-the-radar outfit who will eye a top four finish. Kansas City Blues round out the pool after sneaking in as the final Frontier seed.
At first glance, Pool D has earned the right to be considered the toughest group stage in this year’s tournament. Spearheaded by three-time winners Belmont Shore Rugby, it will be a dogfight to earn the top two places in order to reach the knockout stages. Another hometown team, New York Athletic, will be a tough out. Despite their lack of success in the sevens format, NYA are consistently one of the strongest XVs programs in the country, boasting current Eagles forward Nate Brakeley.
Pool D has two sevens-specific clubs – Beltway Elite and Bulldog Rugby – each making their second appearance in the competition. Beltway Elite return to the fold after winning consecutive qualifiers in dramatic fashion, courtesy of their two speed merchants Joanel Joseph and David Hightower.
Bulldog Rugby have assembled an all-star caliber squad, captained by former Eagle Tim Stanfil. With a trifecta of Lindenwood products, as well as current Eagles 7s player Malon Al-Jiboori, Bulldog Rugby have made plenty of noise prior to the tournament. They made light work of the Denver Barbarians in the opening qualifying event, dispatching them 31-5 in the final. Whichever teams make it out of Pool D will be battletested prior to the knockout stages.
Pool A Pool B Pool C Pool D
Life West Gladiatrix San Diego Surfers Washington Athletic Scion Sirens
D.C Furies Chicago Lions New York Rugby American Rugby Pro
Rocky Mountain Magic Berkeley All Blues Atlanta Harlequins Metropolis Rugby
Phoenix Rugby (FL) American Rugby Pro (II) Northern Virginia Boston Rugby
Reigning Division I XVs National Champions, Life West Gladiatrix, enter the women’s bracket as top seeds with an eye on completing an historic double. Life West have emerged as frontrunners after navigating through the hardest qualifying region. During the Pacific North championships the Gladiatrix brushed aside both Washington Athletic and Berkeley All Blues – two teams with very real national contenders.
The battle for second place in Pool A is where the real intrigue lies.
After four years away, the D.C Furies return to the tournament under the tutelage of Mike McMillon. McMillon has managed to recruit a combination of quality 7s players who have been out of the picture, and 15s talent unfamiliar with the olympic format. Led by Armed Forces member and WPL All-Star game MVP Lauren Glover, along with new spark plugs Arielle Reid and Gloria Cho, the nation’s capitol have steadily improved and may peak at just the right time.
Phoenix Rugby and Rocky Mountain Rugby round out the group, the former donning the flashiest playing kit in the tournament courtesy of providers Aptoella.
Two-time national champions San Diego Surfers lead Pool B after cruising through the Pacific South qualifiers and also brought back a title from Portland after winning the Roy Lucas 7s.
The Surfers boast an established core as well as one of the deepest player and coaching staffs in the country, which has no doubt helped preparations.
The Chicago Lions have been the cream of the Midwest crop all season, dispatching Metropolis 27-7 in the Cin City final. The Lions will have the services of returning captain Sarah Kish and star Brittany O’Dell while also breaking in new talent.
Elsewhere, Berkeley All Blues sneak into the Pool B as the Pacific North number 3 seed – the 2013 national champions have not been able to reach the same heights in recent years.
The second of the two American Rugby Pro (ARPTC) squads also appear in Pool C. However, the Little Rock academy out of Arkansas has a wealth of talent to choose from. The two ARPTC teams have been training in a high performance environment and regularly competing against one another – they may be the fittest squads in New York City.
Pool C welcomes the reigning champions from Seattle, now under a different name, as Washington Athletic Club (WAC). The Pacific Northwesters still have a solid amount of last year’s championship team, including Carly MacKinnon, Mackenzie Garrett, Jennine Duncan, and Ariana Bray. However, WAC have endured a coaching overhaul and were bitten by the injury bug which positioned them behind Life West in the build up to the national championship.
The other three teams in Pool C are all returnees from last year.
Northern Virginia enter as the number 3 seed from the Mid-Atlantic, while Atlanta Harlequins were one of the first teams to qualify for the tournament. Atlanta’s one to watch will be former collegiate 7s star Chidinma Chukwueke.
The hometown side New York Rugby have been rapidly climbing the power rankings after a clean sweep in the Northeast qualifying region. NYRC have looked a formidable unit with nearly all of their squad boasting WPL experience, tallying up over 1000 points while conceding less than 100 in seven tournaments.
Anything less than a knockout berth will be considered a massive disappointment for the hosts.
Similar to the men’s draw, Pool D has taken the mantle as the ‘pool of death’. The pool’s top seeds, ARPTC and Scion Sirens, took home the Emil Signes Cup in 2015 and 2016 respectively.
ARPTC have bolstered their young team with some much needed experience, the most notable inclusion being current Eagle and Harlequins Ladies member Jess Wooden as captain. Wooden is one of the few American players plying their trade professionally.
Scion are still a vaunted outfit, placing fourth last year and bringing back a near identical team.
Boston have also sprinkled youth with experience, led by Deanna Nash and Stacey Markovic, with the introduction of several players in the Northeast Academy. Metropolis Rugby are debutants and will certainly have to prove their mettle against three of the most well-established outfits in the United States.
The team is currently led by USA Men’s 7s star Garrett Bender and contains a young pool of collegiate talent that may spark an upset at the senior level.