“It was a weekend of great highs and lows,” Rich Brierley, who coaches the Montauk Rugby Club, said on the team’s return from a regional Sweet 16 tournament outside Pittsburgh over the past weekend.
Montauk, which had finished as the Northeast’s runner-up to Middlesex, a Boston-area side, came in as the tourney’s eighth seed, setting up a game with top-seeded Naples, Fla., Saturday, a game that the South’s champion apparently thought it would win without too much trouble. But, wonderful to tell, the Sharks, whose forwards Brierley credited with the win, pulled off a huge upset, defeating the Hammerheads 26-21 in a sudden-death overtime period that followed upon two 10-minute OTs and 80 minutes of regulation.
Brierley, who began playing with Montauk in 1981, said it was “the best game I’ve ever seen a Montauk team play, even better than our Sweet 16 win over Provo, Utah, in 2006.”
A win Sunday over Rocky Gorge, Md., the mid-Atlantic champ, would have assured the Sharks of a trip to the Final Four in Denver over the June 2-3 weekend, “but we ran out of gas,” said Brierley of the 27-17 loss. “They had more depth than we did and they just kept pushing us back and back in the second half, stealing the ball from our rucks before enough of our guys were able to move on to the ball.”
That wasn’t the case Saturday, however, as Montauk’s forwards to a great degree controlled the ball, which frequently made its way out to the backs.
The Sharks drew first blood Saturday after Nick Finazzo, a second row forward, picked up a loose ball at around the Naples 22-meter line and fed it to the number-eight man, Mike Bunce Jr. Bunce, in turn, lateraled to Gordon Trotter, the fly half, and Trotter got it out to the left winger, Steve Turza, who ran it into Naples’ try zone.
Naples replied soon after as its forwards pushed the ball in from the 5-meter line, tying the game at 5-5.
Two subsequent penalty kicks and a converted try sent the Southern champs into the halftime break ahead 18-5, but Montauk was not cowed. “We adjusted,” Brierley said. “They were stopping our progress early on, interrupting the pattern of our play, but our forwards stepped it up in the second half. They got us back into the game. . . . There isn’t a team that tackles as hard as we do. It’s not just me talking — other teams have told us that. You can shake off one or two shots, but if you’re hit hard repeatedly, it tends to make you more tentative. Eventually, you get worn down.” On offense, he added, Montauk’s forwards “put in the hard yards.”
“Also, I think Erik [Brierley, the coach’s nephew] played the best game I’ve seen him play with us at fullback. He was under a lot of pressure. Their fly half kept trying to kick for field position, but Erik either countered with a run or a kick of his own. He was solid. He made more than two try-saving tackles as well.”
With the forwards increasingly controlling the ball “the momentum shifted . . . Gordon scored after three phases from inside the 22, and then Teddy Grabowski, who’s had some nagging injuries lately, made a hugely important penalty kick for us from about 35 yards out to bring us to 18-13 with about six minutes left. That’s not a lot of time in rugby where the clock never stops. We needed a try to tie.”
Montauk got it from Jim Abran, a wing forward who, breaking tackles, ran the ball into the far right corner of Naples’ try zone from about the 10 after it had been played out of a ruck.
Grabowski was unable to convert the acutely angled conversion kick, and so the game went into overtime — “two 10-minute periods that you play out. They weren’t sudden-death.”
Naples made good on a penalty kick in the first one, and Grabowski made good on a penalty kick in the second, again from about 35 yards out. With the game tied at 21-21, a third overtime period, this one a sudden-death OT, ensued.
(Trotter, Montauk’s New Zealand-born captain, said later he muffed a chance to score the game-winner in the first OT. Thinking, mistakenly, that Montauk would need a converted try to win, he turned, once having run into the try zone, toward the goalposts behind which he hoped to touch the ball down only to have it knocked from his hands by an alert defender.)
A coin toss resulted in the Hammerheads kicking off to the Sharks, who, “in five or six phases moved all the way down the field — we must have had possession for two or three minutes. We were pushing right and Gordon was waiting for the defense to bite. When it did, he swung the ball out to Matt [Brierley, Rich Brierley’s son], who was on the left wing, and Matt ran it in from 10 to 15 yards out, beating his man to the corner.”
The dazzling upset of the regional tourney’s top seed was the latest in a number of a heady moments the Sharks, who weren’t expected to be so good when they took the field last fall, have enjoyed in the past months, during which they topped the Met Union’s Division II sides at 8-0, were the runner-up, as aforesaid, to Middlesex in the Northeast region tourney, and defeated three Division I sides in friendly contests this spring.
Asked how Middlesex had done in Pittsburgh, Brierley said, “They lost 39-36 on Saturday to Wisconsin.”
Thus Wisconsin and Rocky Gorge are to play in the national Division II Final Four in Denver.
Interestingly, Montauk had a 17-5 lead at the half in Sunday’s game with Rocky Gorge, thanks to tries by Jim Abran (converted by Trotter), Nick Lawler, and Trotter.
“They just kept coming at us in the second half,” said Brierley, “and we didn’t have enough guys to secure the rucks. We found ourselves constantly backing up, backing up. It was a war of attrition at that point. They scored a converted try with 20 minutes left, and then they broke through the middle to tie it at 17-17. Although the pass that led to that try was very suspect. I’m anxious to see the film. I thought it was a forward pass; the referee saw it from a different angle.”
“Then, probably with seven minutes to go, their number-eight man scored the go-ahead try off the edge of a ruck near the middle of the field. There were a couple of missed tackles. They converted it and, with about two minutes left, they tacked on a penalty kick for 27-17. We came close to scoring in the last two minutes. We were inside their 22 when the game ended. There was no gas left in the tank.”
“Still, while it was disappointing to lose, we all knew it had been a terrific season. Everyone played above expectations, especially the forwards, as I’ve said, and the credit for that goes to Mike Bunce.”
Asked how Montauk would wind up in the national rankings — it was ranked 12th going into the tourney by Rugby magazine, which had Naples ranked second — Brierley said, “I’d be disappointed with anything less than seventh or eighth nationally.”