After a long winter of friendlies and practice games the Elite Cup is finally here for the East Coast, with Big Apple rivals New York Athletic Club and Old Blue facing off this weekend.
There remains little love lost between the two teams, and the prospect of clashing in the crisp air of New York, when those hits hurt a little bit more, is something both will relish.
NYAC is coming off a series of tense victories, beating Life 12-5 in Georgia, BYU 22-16, and Army 34-31. Those games have also battered the team a little bit. USA scrumhalf Mike Petri is out for the foreseeable future with a fracture at the base of his left thumb. Their two best forwards, James Denise and Brian Doyle, didn’t play against Army, but, along with rested Al McFarland, should play this weekend.
“The game against BYU was a great game and really challenging,” said Doyle. “But we paid for it a bit. It’s tough going out on some of those long trips. When you’re 6-7 and trying to fit into a seat on an airplane and then get out and try to get some rest for a game, it’s tough.”
What is also tough is that the AC isn’t exactly firing on all cylinders. While their lineout looks solid, their scrum against Army was not up to their own standards, and even experience forwards seemed to be going into contact high.
Their kicking game is also a work in progress. That is partly because flyhalf Toby L’Estrange is working on his kicking for the USA team.
“It’s been tough to get enough time to really work on the kicking,” said L’Estrange. “I am working on getting the right rhythm going. I do feel like we’re getting our pattern together, but our individual skills, for each player and for the team as a whole, need to be better.”
L’Estrange also has to get used to a new scrumhalf, as Justin Hundley steps in for the injured Petri. Hundley hasn’t played that position in anger for years, but looked pretty comfortable in his first tilt against West Point and should be fine.
For the AC, their big concern coming out of the Life and BYU games was that the tries they were scoring weren’t so much created as emerged out of mistakes or turnovers from the opposition. Against Army, they created tries in a variety of ways, and despite the fact they don’t have blazing pace on the outside, they score on the wing because they use space well.
Old Blue will be without one of their most dangerous attackers, as Luke Hume is with the USA 7s team. But they do return a group of experience veterans, including Will Brazier, Mark Griffin, Derek Lipscomb, Marcus Respes, Chris Carey, Ben Sadgrove and Dom Wareing.
There’s no guarantee that all will be in the lineup this weekend, and in any event Old Blue will have some new faces, as well. Howard Bishop is a young center from the North of England just out of college. Matt Costelloe is a US-qualified player late of Young Munster in Ireland. Amia Madulaarachchi is a former Sri Lanka U19 player who joined Old Blue via Canada, as you do. With an influx of some local college products and some players from overseas, Old Blue looks to be a little different this year.
But they will rely heavily on their veterans.
Old Blue’s buildup has not been as good NYAC’s. They took two mixed squads to the Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest tournament, which was useful in getting players on the field, but perhaps not quite as useful in nailing down a 1st 15 and a game plan.
Last week, they played Baltimore Chesapeake in a more serious warmup game, and crushed them 79-5.
“It would be nice if the whole season goes as well as that game went,” said club president Quentin Unsworth. “We are pleased with the teams we have. We’ve got a good mix of veterans and new players. We have a chance to play for three national championships, in the Elite Cup, DI, and DIII. This weekend is a big one for us in starting that run.”