Rocky Gorge Wins to Advance to the National Championship over New Haven
New Haven misses the conversion in the last play of the match to book Rocky Gorge's ticket to the big dance in Madison.
An intense day of rugby came down to one silent moment. A kick, followed by cheers for some, tears for others. The DII National Semifinal would be won or lost as New Haven center Sean Lilley lined up for a conversion attempt near the sideline. Utter silence followed by a thud. The kick sailed high, but it pushed left. The fans of Rocky Gorge screamed in joy and several players fell to their knees. The New Haven Old Black came back from a Rocky Gorge twenty point lead in the second half to have a chance to win to game on the final play. However, Rocky Gorge survived to return to the National Championships for the second time in three years, 34-33.
The sunny day started with two teams that earned their right to play in the semifinal with hard fought victories in rainy and muddy conditions. On Saturday, New Haven won a back and forth match against the Atlanta Old White, 29-24, and Rocky Gorge won their 2012 championship rematch versus Wisconsin, 14-7.
This was the first meeting between the teams and each coach had their clubs ready for a battle. After the whistle, the Gorge forwards set the tone. In the 5th minute, Gorge pounded it within the five-meter line and scored after a fourteen-phase attack with a pick and go by lock Will Miller. The conversion was missed and the score was 5-0. Sixteen minutes later in the 21st minute, New Haven responded with a great run by the wing Marcus Satavu and fullback Elliott Waangard finished the play with a centered ball for the try. Lilley converted the score to take a 7-5 lead. Gorge answered almost immediately with a lineout within the New Haven 22 that was passed through the backs ending with wing Jay Benedetti dotting down the try in the corner. Gorge missed the conversion, but retook the lead, 10-7. Three minutes later, New Haven attempted a penalty kick following an offsides and Lilley kicked it wide left to keep Gorge up by three.
Gorge ended the half with a bang by increasing their lead with no time left on the clock. It started with a rolling maul where flanker Dustin Meehan broke off and after a ruck, Gorge’s backs got it wide to the wing. Benedetti centered the ball for his second try, and Flyhalf LJ Pijnenburg made the conversion. Gorge went into the half with a 17-7 lead.
The second half started with Gorge threatening; however, New Haven forced a turnover deep within their own territory. At the 43rd minute mark, New Haven wing Rich Kirkland got the ball at his own 22 and beat three tacklers to score an 80-meter try. Lilley added the conversion to cut the lead to three points, 17-14.
After some back and forth, Gorge then took control of the ball and scored 3 tries within ten minutes. At the 50th minute, Gorge had a scrum within the 22 of New Haven where eightman Josh Brown took the ball wide and connected with wing Benedetti then back inside to the scrumhalf Nick Sylor for the try. The conversion missed and the score was 22-14. Then with a lineout at the 10-meter mark, Gorge kept it in the forwards and pummeled into the New Haven defense until in the 54th minute, Brown scored extending the lead to 27-14. In the 59th minute, Gorge took advantage of a New Haven penalty and off a lineout, Brown slammed home his second try of the day. Pijnenburg connected with the conversion to put the lead at 20 points, 34-14. New Haven countered with an extended goal line offensive series until the 63rd minute where flyhalf Chris Rosa dummied the ball to dive in the try. Lilley kicked his third conversion to cut the lead to 34-21.
For the next 10 minutes, the game was a test between the might of Gorge’s forwards and defense against New Haven’s ability to stretch the field with their backs. With about ten minutes remaining while New Haven was driving down field, Gorge’s Pijnenburg was given a yellow card for an intentional knock-on. After Gorge couldn’t find touch on a penalty, New Haven brought the ball across the field and Waangard kicked a beautiful up and under and recovered his own kick in the try zone. With the conversion by Lilley, New Haven inched closer for a score of 34-28.
With the momentum and Gorge playing man down, New Haven kept the foot on the gas and applied pressure. New Haven had one last opportunity as time expired. Off a ruck within the 22, New Haven’s Lilley ran the ball to the weak side and crossed four tacklers to score in the corner of the try zone. Lilley lined the ball up at the 22 about 5 meters from the sideline when the crowd became deafly silent. As the ball flew off Lilley’s foot, it drifted wide left and the referee blew final whistle. Rocky Gorge survived to win by one point, 34-33, and advance to the National Championship.
New Haven Head Coach Bob Chester reflected on the match by saying, “It was back-and-forth. I credit Rocky Gorge, they are an excellent team. They gave us everything they got and we still hung in there. I credit my guys to keep their composure coming back. It was one hell of a game. “ On how they played, Chester said, ”I thought we had a little slow go. They put us under pressure early. The forwards were strong and they were using that to their advantage. We made some adjustments at half in what we wanted to do and started to put it in later in the half. Moving the ball wide we thought we could gain some ground. We got some go forward with the forwards with the same thing Gorge was doing with some pick and goes and then trying to move it wide with the backs in some space. “ To sum up the difference in the game, Chester said that it was “the intensity Rocky Gorge came out with. It really put us on our back foot. It took us a little while to get going.”
Will Brewington, the Rocky Gorge Head Coach said, “They were very dangerous and creased our defense a couple of times. We did cover well. They scored two tries when we were down a man. Their backs were hard to handle, a good #12 and they had two good wings who were very fast.“ When asked what makes Gorge did to pull out the victory, Brewington stated, “It comes down to our refusal to give ground, to quit. Our relentlessness. “
Rocky Gorge Captain Matt Carroll said that “they came and they dug deeper than I thought they had. While we didn’t finish the way we would have liked to and that’s why we all have this kind of ornery feeling to us, I think it was the best thing that could have happened to us. We need to know that even when we’re up, guys can come back to us.”
On how Gorge competed, Carroll remarked, “We got guys who came in and wouldn’t let up. We made small mistakes of execution, but mistakes of strategy weren’t there today. They played a good game that counters us. This was a team that would bring it every single minute. The deciding factor of this game was that we brought it early. We got into a rhythm at the beginning of the second half and popped in two tries, and for the rest of the time, we were playing with the lead. We can play slow ball, we can play fast ball. We’re versatile in that sense. We can play any way. You can’t pigeon hole us as a forwards team or a backs team or a fast team or a slow team. We are a very balanced team. That’s what this weekend showed us.”
New Haven Center Sean Lilley described the game by saying, “We were a bit shellshocked that they came out hard and hit us pretty hard. It took about 10 or 15 minutes to get into the game and we settled in. We scored a couple of tries and then we were making a couple of silly mistakes. Their #8 was doing some hard damage against us, but our backline was ripping Gorge apart a bit. It was a real even game. It was their forwards against our backs. We made mistakes where we would score a try and then straight off the kickoff, we would make a mistake and they would score points straight away after and that’s what kind of killed us.”
On how the game ended, Lilley stated, “Gorge went up 20 points at one stage and we had that courage to come back with three tries and it was my decisive kick at the end to miss it. The ball was in our court at the end and unfortunately, I put it to the left and they are going on.”
Rocky Gorge will now face Tempe in the National Final on May 31st. On the prospect of going to Madison to face the West Champion in two weeks, Carroll said, “Playoffs like this are a war of attrition. Not just your energy, but your might. Today showed us that a team you never heard of, can almost come back and beat you. We came to finish. Very simple. I don’t play to lose. I play to test myself and I can’t wait to play a good West team. We’ve seen the scores. We know they have a potent offense. Win or lose, we are going to come to an understanding at the end of that game of where we are as a team and where they are. I can’t wait to be out on that field and play that game. “
Rocky Gorge 34
Tries: Miller, Benedetti (2), Brown (2), Sylor
Convs: Pignenburg (2)
New Haven 33
Tries: Waangard (2), Kirkland, Rosa, Lilley
Convs: Lilley (4)