Atlanta hopes its stauch defense will silence North Shore’s backline weapons.
By Jackie Finlan
Mesa, Ariz., is going to be a busy city starting tomorrow, as the Women’s Premier League and division I & II championships ensue in one location over two days. Division I will be contesting its semifinal round, sending its top four teams, while the WPL and DII send eight teams apiece.In DI, the Final Four showcases three of last year’s semifinalists and newbie Chicago North Shore. CNS, which beat Tempe 48-8 in the first round and Philadelphia 24-6 in the quarterfinals, will face Atlanta tomorrow. The Harlequins, the top Competitive Region 3 team downed Belmont Shore 24-6 after a bye through the Round of 12.
“Like most teams,” Atlanta flyhalf Heather Hale said, “we are hopefully still on our way to peaking, but we have been working very hard the past few weeks to improve our overall game. We’re getting the groove on in our lineouts and working extended periods of continuity. We’ve continued to focus on work at the breakdown and multi-phase play so we can play the fun 15-man rugby we want to. We still need to string together a full 80.”
Atlanta has a good balance of strength throughout the lineup and saw leading performances from flanker Liz Snodgrass and captain Steph Iacobucci a couple of weekends ago. They did a good job of disrupting Belmont scrumhalf Ann Wang and the general fluidity of the back line. Inside center Patty Jervey put her team on the front on offense and helped set up Sue “Cupcake” Uchneat and fullback Kari Morrison for piercing runs into the tryzone. Hale’s boot did a good job of relieving pressure and gaining territory to put their dangerous back line into scoring position.
As Atlanta looks ahead to Chicago North Shore, they know they’re up for a battle. “They have a lot of weapons,” Hale said, “with experience and speed in the back line and hard-rucking and running pack players.” Fullback Teena Mastrangelo and lock Sarah Walsh accounted for five tries in Austin, Texas.
“As one of our captain’s says, we will be seeking to ‘self-actualize’ on Friday by playing pretty, smart, clean and tough 15 woman (38 woman) rugby for 80 minutes,” Hale continued. “We are exceedingly excited to get to Mesa and see what we’re made of.”
Atlanta and North Shore don’t have much knowledge of each as far as first-hand experience on the pitch goes, but that’s not the case for San Diego and Seattle. The two teams have finished #1 and #2 in Competitive Region 1, and their annual league game is the highlight of the season. The Surfers are the favorite as the defending national champion and beat the Breakers 29-13, but with the DI title on the line and neither team with a home-field advantage, one hopes for an even tighter match.
Both teams received byes through the Round of 12. San Diego then advanced to the semifinals with a 26-3 win over Glendale, whereas Seattle topped NOVA 17-5 to move on. Last year, NOVA beat Seattle 25-23, eating up a two-try deficit late in the game and stealing the Breakers’ championship berth.
“Beating NOVA is definitely the high point of the season,” said fullback and captain Marty Quick, who accounted for 17 pts off the boot. NOVA had come off a massive 53-12 win over host Austin during the Round of 12, and Seattle coach Tony Maphosa took note of the Virginia team’s potent back line.
“After watching NOVA play,” Maphosa said, “it was clear that we needed to keep the ball away from their back line, use our forward pack to control the tempo of the game and then take advantage of their forced errors.”
The Breakers stuck to their game plan and took a 7-5 lead into the half thanks to a try from flanker Michelle Stephen, who touched down a rolling maul, and Quick conversion. CJ Hildreth accounted for NOVA’s five-pointer.
It was Seattle’s crippling tackles and pressure defense, led by back row players Stephen, Erica Black and Rose Baker, that kept NOVA’s back at bay, and former New York scrumhalf Carrie White did an excellent job of keeping intensity high.
Flyhalf Mari Thierran finished off Black’s 20-meter breakaway for a try, which Quick converted in the 58th minute. Quick added a 30-meter penalty at the whistle for the 17-5 win and semis berth.
Seattle will need to employ a similar game plan against San Diego, whose dangerous back line mimicks NOVA’s. They’ll need that 80-minute game as well, as the Surfers have the legs to score early, late and often.
“We left it all on the field,” Stephen had said about the NOVA victory, and the Breakers will have to do it again if they want to claim a spot in the final.