In breezing by Portland (Me.) 29-8 at Fort Adams State Park in Newport, R.I., Saturday, the Montauk Rugby Club assured itself a berth in Division II’s national Sweet 16 tournament in the spring — the first time the locals have advanced that far since 2006, when they went all the way to the Final Four.
But on Sunday the roof caved in as the Sharks were bageled 53-0 by the defending Northeast region champion, Middlesex, a Boston area side that, according to Montauk’s New Zealand-born captain and fly half, Gordon Trotter, “played at a higher level than we did.”
That having been said, Trotter ventured that had the Northeast final been played Saturday, “it would have been a far different game,” inasmuch as on Sunday the Sharks were without the services of Mike Bunce, their best all-around player, who had been red-carded near the end of Saturday’s match, and Connor Miller and Zach Brenneman, two of the young tyros who have bolstered Montauk’s prospects this fall. Moreover, Steve Turza, one of Montauk’s wings, “was 50 percent,” according to Rich Brierley, the side’s coach.
Both Trotter and Brierley were, however, inclined to look on the bright side during telephone conversations Monday morning.
“We’d always thought it was scary that we were winning all the time,” said Brierley, “especially with these young guys, knowing that at some point we would lose. . . . As soon as you think you’re good, you stop getting better.”
The 53-0 pasting “definitely was a wake-up call,” Trotter said. “Our young guys haven’t played at this level before. I and a couple of others have, but the young guys haven’t. Now they know they have to raise the level of their play. For some of them it was the first time they’d lost!”
“It’s not the worst thing in the world,” said Brierley, whose son, Matt, and nephew, Erik, are among the side’s Young Turks. “In the spring they’ll be playing teams above them in ability and that will be good for them. It will give them something to shoot for. So far, they’re handling it well. . . . These guys, Erik, Mark Scioscia, Connor, Matt, Zach, Brian Anderson, and the others have no idea how good they can be, they’re playing at nowhere near their potential.”
As for the good news, Brierley said that Montauk, the second seed, didn’t have any trouble with third-seeded Portland on Saturday, though the Fort Adams field, bounded on two sides by water, was sodden and a stiff wind was blowing the length of the pitch.
Since in the first half Montauk was going against the wind and since the field was so soggy — “it was like playing on a mattress” — the Sharks, eschewing kicks and passing among the backs, relied instead on their forwards to advance the ball.
And advance it they did, with Nick Finazzo, “the man of the match,” John Glennon, the hooker, Nick Lawler, who like Finazzo played in the second row, and Bunce and Hamish Cuthbertson, who alternated at number-eight, figuring prominently in the attacks.
“We possessed the ball 70 percent of the time and kept it inside,” said Brierley. “We didn’t spin it outside. Our forwards kept going forward. We scored five tries in all, three in the first half, by Erik [a winger that day], Nick, and Mike, all from in close, and two in the second — one by Jim Abran, a back row forward, and one by Turza, who was on the wing.”
Near the end of the game, however, as aforementioned, Bunce, who has played with Boston’s Super League side, was red-carded — unjustly in Brierley and Trotter’s opinions — following a brief scuffle. “It was called by a sideline judge, not the head referee — it was a push, not a punch,” said Brierley. “He should have been yellow-carded like the other guy, not red-carded. There was no reason for the red card.”
An appeal was entered immediately, though to no avail. Thus Bunce had to sit out the Northeast final. “We’re going to appeal it further,” Brierley said Monday morning. “We’re going to ask the Northeast game committee the reduce it to a yellow card. . . he’s definitely a player we rely upon.”
Regarding Sunday’s “teachable moment,” Trotter said, “We competed well for about 50 percent of it, we had a couple of opportunities early on, but we couldn’t cross their line. They were leading 3 to nil 30 minutes into the game, but two interceptions, one by an opposing back and one by one of their forwards, resulted in tries, and they scored two more before halftime. At that point they were up 28-0, and so it went.”
As for the interceptions (Portland had a pick as well), Brierley said, “In all our games in the past, we’ve gotten away with it — we’ve had teams going backward. You have to run through the gaps before spinning the ball out. That way, the defense is behind you, not in front of you. That’s one of the basics we have to work on.”
The locals, moreover, were baffled by some of the calls, especially by the sideline judges, Trotter said. “For example, a sideline judge who was 50 meters away, on the other side of the field, called us for collapsing a scrum when we were attacking from five meters out. . . . There was a lot of silly stuff like that.”
As a result of the weekend’s results, then, the Sharks finished with a stellar 9-1 record, and ought to be at full strength for the two Sweet 16 games they are to play in Columbia, S.C., in mid-May.
They’ll not get a chance to play Middlesex again, however, unless both teams reach the Final Four, said Trotter. Middlesex and the Village Lions both lost first-round games in South Carolina last year, he said.
He added that, in the interim, “we’d love to encourage more young guys to come out.”
The club’s holiday dinner is to be held at the Beachhouse restaurant in East Hampton (across from Nichol’s) on Friday, Dec. 2. Reservations can be had at $75 a head. Awards to Montauk’s player of the year, rookie of the year, and clubman of the year are to be given out that night.