3.24.18 By Evan Lappen of Rugbytoday.com
Down by three points in stoppage time, the play started with a scrum at the 22. Navy’s eightman pick gained some ground and the ball was sent to the right to the backs. The forwards had their opportunity before it was swung to the right. The physical Army defense was waiting on the wing and stuffed the attempt at the line. The referee signaled a held ball and blew the final whistle sending the West Point faithful into a celebratory frenzy as Army beat Navy, 18-15.
“Everything we did this year was to prepare for this game and I’m beyond proud of the boys,” Army captain Jake Lachina said. “That’s what Army rugby is all about. No matter how much the pressure, we won’t give up in the end. We knew we had to make a stop when we did. It shows how much heart the guys have and how hard we work every day. Going forward we have to keep that mindset into the playoffs.
It was a brutal, physical affair in Annapolis, Md. as hard hits, cards, and defensive stands ruled the pitch. Army triumphed over Navy for the fifth time in a row as both clubs prepare for the final push towards the D1A Playoffs. Former Army General H.R. McMaster was in attendance and gave a pregame speech to the Black Knights.
“[McMaster] summed up what you saw in the game,” Army head coach Matt Sherman stated. “He mentioned his time with the rugby team influenced him as an officer and a leader in the Army. It’s how important it is to build teams that you can absolutely depend on and trust the guy on the left and right of you. That player is fully committed to you and that’s what our team delivered today. I think he would be proud.”
The first part of the match was primarily played in Navy’s half as the clubs tested each other’s defense. Penalties switched possessions throughout the day shifting the momentum back and forth.
The Midshipmen put the first points on the board when Connor McNerney’s penalty kick split the posts after successive penalties about ten minutes in. Each team drove deep into their opponent’s territory before getting stopped on a penalty or turnover.
A yellow card to Army gave Navy the man advantage but the West Point defense picked up the pace. The intensity forced a penalty giving Jon Kim at shot at goal. From 35 meters out, Kim’s kick knotted the score at 3-3.
Following an Army scrum deep in their territory, the clearance kick was charged down and the West Point scrumhalf punched the ball out of the endzone. The scrummie was sent off and Navy pushed over the subsequent scrum for the McNerney try. The conversion failed, but Navy led 8-3 with 13 minutes left in the half.
The man advantage didn’t last long as a Navy player was sent off for foul play and Army inched closer with a 40-meter Kim penalty in the 33rd minute. With the momentum, the Black Knights attacked with its forwards. After getting within ten meters of the line, the ball was shipped out to Jake Lachina who weaved his way to a try. Kim connected on the conversion giving Army the 13-8 halftime lead.
The second half started with the Army man advantage but Navy killed it off. Line breaks by Lachina and Marco Carrabotta were stifled by penalties. Those infractions set up Navy for its next score. A Midshipmen scrum inside the 22 led to an intense forwards ball. A pile of bodies at the goal line resulted in the referee’s hand being raised and Cody Mendelow being awarded the try. McNerney’s conversion gave Navy the 15-13 lead in the 50th minute.
Back and forth play ensued and a Navy penalty attempt kissed the left upright in the 60th minute. Kicks, counters, and more penalties littered the second half until an Army five-meter lineout set up the Black Knights with a scoring opportunity.
Navy’s defense withstood the initial barrage but a second chance after an offsides call gave Army another lineout from the five. The West Pointers mauled it and Ryan Moshak broke off for the dive at the line. Kim’s conversion was wide and Army led 18-15 with less than 15 minutes to go.
With little time remaining, Army played ball control with its offense keeping it tight with the forwards. Navy had other ideas and either forced a turnover or poached the ball outright. For all of Army’s effort, it could not maintain possession setting up the final sequence.
After a penalty where Navy decided not to go for points to tie the game, the Midshipmen had no interest in the draw and wanted to win the match on the field. With both clubs gassed and the game on the line, Army’s defense stepped up to the challenge and outlasted Navy to keep it from scoring on the last play.
“It’s hugely disappointing to lose,” Navy coach Gavin Hickie said. “The overriding fact is that I’m immensely proud of these Midshipmen. The whole season they have been phenomenal and today, we are going to hurt, we had it in our grasp at the very end and one decision hurt us. It doesn’t change the trajectory we are on. Just keep your head down and working hard.
“We found a way to figure out what we needed to do on the physical front,” Sherman said. “Navy was highly impressive physically on both the contact area and the scrums. We rose to that. I thought we struggled early and then rose to it. We stayed the course as a team and our on-field player leadership was tremendous.”
Describing the final play, Sherman praised his club. “That sequence sums up this team. It’s a never quit attitude, it's doing whatever it takes and giving everything you have for the team. Forwards are doing their part forcing them to go wide and the backs did their part. It was a one in 20 stop for that try and I was for sure they were going to get over. They willed themselves to not let it happen.”