Written By: Adam McQueen

After a pulsating weekend of scintillating action and thrilling upsets, Bulldog Rugby and the San Diego Surfers emerged victorious at the USA Rugby Emirates Airline Club 7s National Championships. Under the floodlights at the Rocco B. Comisso stadium, the San Diego Surfers reclaimed their first championship since 2014, while Bulldog Rugby return from New York City with their first ever national title. 

Women’s Division

Sunday’s knockout fixtures setup a handful of massive clashes after the heavy-hitters proved dominant during pool play on Saturday. Although Life West and New York Rugby Club rightfully earned the greatest pre-tournament buzz, San Diego’s +84 point differential and swift disposal of Rocky Mountain Magic in the quarterfinals quickly turned heads. Their wave of momentum was going to be hard to stop.

The first upset of the knockout round occurred during the quarterfinals as New York succumbed to a 12-14 loss against ARPTC Blue in an absolute barn-burner. With the game deadlocked at seven a piece, Tahlia Caracal slipped across the line in the closing moments to seemingly secure the victory for New York. However, with no time on the clock amidst a hectic passage of play, Jaynee Taufoo broke loose with an incredible solo effort. Jessica Wooden’s extras meant that ARPTC would earn the opportunity to take on San Diego in the semifinals.

On the other side of the draw, the Scion Sirens and Life West Gladiatrix played a nail-biter of their own during the semi finals. Scion had emerged as the most physically imposing outfit in the tournament, dominating teams with ferocious line speed. However, Life West’s abundance of USA Eagles talent were a class above every opposition they had faced so far.

The encounter remained a cagey affair throughout with neither team able to truly break the game wide open. After thwarting numerous attacks from the reigning Division I National Champions, Scion mustered up a game-tying score in the closing moments of the match. Another resolute defensive play earned Scion a turnover at the ruck and suddenly Camille Johnson scampered away for the winner from deep inside her own territory.

Matches were beginning to turn into heart-thumping encounters as the pressure mounted. However, San Diego maintained their composure as a well oiled machine, zipping the ball from sideline to sideline. The adrenaline-sapping victory in the quarters proved insurmountable for ARPTC – the Surfers stomped the life from them immediately with a commanding 26-12 win. Current Eagle Megan Foster and rising star Stephanie Rovetti were instrumental forces, but it was San Diego’s team-oriented approach that was at the core of their success.

In the final, Scion – similar to ARPTC in the round prior – struggled to bounce back from their physically draining victory and looked sluggish out of the gates. San Diego, as they had all tournament, showed no mercy and raced to a nineteen point lead behind a brace of tries from eventual MVP Rovetti. The Surfers attacked with pace and from depth better than any other team and it was the driving force behind their success in manipulating space in attack. A bulldozing try from Scion standout Kiki Morgan and a late turnover score wouldn’t be enough – the Sirens had sounded the alarms seven minutes too late. San Diego quickly booted the ball into touch to secure their third Emil Signes Cup with a 19-12 win.

Men’s Division

In the men’s competition, the knockout stages were delicately poised. One could envision each quarterfinal matchup going either way. No team had blown by their competition without a hitch in the group stages, albeit some had put forth convincing performances, and the bracket immediately had heavyweight bouts commence from the get-go.

Bulldog Rugby opened day two against a pre-tournament dark horse, Dallas Rugby. Led by the fleet footed back-to-back Dream-Teamer Narada Jackson, Dallas were a tough out and had pushed Old Blue of New York to the brink the night prior. Despite being one of the youngest outfits in the tournament, Bulldog displayed no nervousness in their 22-7 win. Their youthful contingent of Cristian Rodriguez, Harley Wheeler, and Aaron Matthews – along with the veteran presences of Tim Stanfil and tournament MVP Michael Nelson – were proving hard to stop.

While the Bulldogs romped, other tournament favourites began to falter. Washington Athletic, consisting of Seattle Seawolves members Riekert Hattingh and Peter Tiberio, were shocked by the Denver Barbarians 19-14.

One match later, the hometown Old Blue of New York – who had only conceded one try in all of day one – bowed out of the competition after being on the short end of a 7-5 scoreline against Belmont Shore. A late knock-on from New York shattered any hopes of a first national championship since 2005. Meanwhile, Keni Nasoqeqe was spearheading Belmont’s charge towards the finals. The big man’s rampaging runs were continually leaving would-be tacklers in his wake. After Mystic River knocked off Metropolis in the other quarterfinal, suddenly only the qualifiers from Pool A and Pool D remained.

In our pre-tournament preview we had labelled Pool D the ‘group of death’. Our predictions were proven to be correct as both Bulldog and Belmont Shore earned a berth in the final, casting aside their semi-final opponents with relative ease. Nasoqeqe dismantled Denver from the opening whistle with a pair of tries and by halftime, making it clear that Belmont would be set to battle for their fourth Emil Signes cup. Bulldog once again leaned on a hot start and a tenacious defensive line to defeat Mystic River 15-7, and fans were now treated to a Pool D rematch from day one.

Bulldog’s intensity and physicality had been their calling card all tournament, and Belmont were intent on matching them in that department during the championship game. However, Belmont Shore’s brash approach quickly boiled over as they were handed a yellow card for a high tackle less than two minutes into the game.

The man advantage is a back breaker in sevens rugby, and Bulldog swiftly capitalized. Wrecking ball Harley Wheeler dropped a Belmont defender with a shuddering run and found a supporting Stanfil, who quickly found a flying Aaron Matthews, who then soared between the posts. Belmont regained their footing and looked to have equalized after Nasoqeqe drew in two defenders and offloaded to a streaking ConRoy Smith. However, Smith made a monumental error by stepping on the sideline as he headed towards the try line untouched.

Small errors magnify in the shortened sevens format. The Bulldogs immediately responded to the befuddling error with Juan Romero scything through the Belmont defence and offloading to the ever-present Nelson, who capped off a momentum-shifting eighty metre try as the match headed towards half-time. Within an instant, Belmont Shore were stuck in a deep hole.

The pressure of the deficit began to weigh heavily upon Belmont in the second half. The Bulldog’s unrelenting defence was not helping the situation either as the three time champions struggled to get out of their own half. Another moment of ill-discipline handed Belmont another yellow card and the Bulldogs could smell blood in the water. Sensing the player advantage, Romero disrupted the breakdown and earned a penalty deep inside Belmont’s 22 metre line. The ball was quickly shipped to the outside, and Marcus Tupuola dove over, providing the final nail in the coffin. Belmont replied with a late try of their own, merely consolation as the Bulldog’s completed their dominant Sunday 19-7.

Women’s Dream Team

Gionna Cruz, Jade McGrath, Stephanie Rovetti, Kristine Sommer, Nikki Kenyon, Shamira Robles, Paige Stathopoulos, Chidinma Chukwueke, Kiki Morgan, Allison Gallagher, Jennine Duncan, Summer Harris-Jones

Men’s Dream Team

Tim Stanfil, ConRoy Smith, Gavan D’Amore-Morrison, Jared Collinson, Cory Graham, Keni Nasoqeqe, Michael Nelson, Michael Al-Jaboori, Narada Jackson, Bryan Ptomey Jr., Shane Moor, Taylor Howden

Final Results

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