The Midwest Rugby Union qualification tournament series came to a close this weekend in Grand Rapids, Mich. at the Rock Hard 7s with three teams in a virtual tie at the top of the series standings.
Two spots in nationals were on the line and three teams were desperate to earn a trip to the tournament. Heading into the weekend, the Chicago Lions were on the top of the group after winning all four of the previous qualifiers. The Milwaukee Barbarians sat uncomfortably in second place, just one point ahead of 1823 from Columbus, Ohio. The Chicago Lions, who were docked points for a paperwork mistake, thus making the standings a lot close, managed to win the tournament yet again, clinching first place and a berth to the national championships.
But the second spot still hung in the balance. At the end of the day, 1823 finished the Rock Hard 7s in second place and the Milwaukee Barbarians took home third place, leaving the two squads tied in points in the Midwest Rugby Union standings, with their fate depending on a tiebreaker. The first tiebreaker in the Midwest is head-to-head matchups, and 1823 qualified for nationals based on their matchups with the Barbarians throughout the season, while the team from Milwaukee will stay home this season in heartbreaking fashion.
Although the most dramatic part of the weekend was the way in which second place was settled, the Chicago Lions performances in qualifying should not go unnoticed.
Quietly going about their business, the Lions won all five tournaments this year. It seemed that the only mistake the team made was a gaffe in paperwork at one of the qualifiers, which docked them points in the standings and made the race for first place seem much closer than it actually was.
Head Coach Jeremy Nash credits his defense as the team’s foundation, which did even better than he expected.
“I thought we gave up two tries in the tournament, but in the end we realized that we only gave up one,” remarked Nash. “The way we see it is that the less the opponent scores, the better chance we have to win, so our philosophy is very much based on defense.”
Nash believes that to qualify for nationals, it takes a true team effort, and he got that out of his squad this season. “Starters and bench players stood up all year for us when we needed them,” he said. “On Saturday, Flyhalf Peter Tiberio stepped up with a lot of amazing plays. I can’t say he didn’t make any mistakes, but he sure made a lot of outstanding plays for us.”
This year marks the seventh time the Chicago Lions will make the trip to nationals, and they will arrive with a quiet confidence that they have developed through experience and consistency. However, Coach Nash will be sure his team is ready for a battle game in and game out. “Every year it’s a battle to qualify and every year it’s a battle at nationals. We always feel confident going to nationals, but we know that every game is going to be a challenge. Every team is there for a reason; they deserve to be there. If we’re going to win, we have to put our best foot forward every game.”
Nash speaks like a coach who has been there before - which he has, as a player - and this year he believes his team has what it takes to capture the title. He has a great respect for the other teams in the tournament, and knows that the Lions will be ready for the fierce competition at nationals, including 1823 who just barely sneaked in.
Without a doubt, the story of the day in Michigan was how the second spot at nationals was earned. 1823 captured their spot at nationals based on a head-to-head tiebreaker, but 1823 player Dominic Mauer said his team deserved it.
“We are completely fine with qualifying on a tiebreak, although we would have liked to qualify on points alone,” Mauer said.
The Midwest sets up their qualifying tournaments by placing team randomly in pools, instead of based on previous results and “and unfortunately we drew the Lions quite a bit in pool play as well as in the semis, whereas Milwaukee only saw them twice in the finals. We were aware of the tiebreak scenario before the weekend and knew what we had to do. Our 4-1 record against Milwaukee stands as justification that we should be representing the Midwest at nationals.”
Although 1823 did not have much success against the Lions this season, Mauer believes that they can turn the corner and beat them in nationals. “It takes a lot of composure to be able to close out tournaments the way the Lions have this summer as well as previous summers and they should certainly be happy about that,” he said.
Mauer certainly respects the Lions but he thinks that “if we are able to limit our turnovers, where the Lions get a majority of their tries from us, and be a little more clinical with ball in hand at the end of game, then I believe that we will be able to secure a win over them in nationals.”
This year is the first time 1823 will be going to nationals and Mauer said that it will be a great experience for the young team. Even though it is their first time at the tournament, “the squad will do pretty well and will probably surprise a few people along the way,” said Mauer.
Milwaukee may be unhappy to have to stay home, but the tightness of the Midwest competition could well prepare Chicago and 1823 for the challenge of the national championships.