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NIRA Showdown at West Point as Harvard takes on Army

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NIRA Showdown at West Point as Harvard takes on Army

Mobile forwards could be the key for Harvard. Photo Rory Goff.

In what is almost certainly a playoff preview, Harvard and Army clash at the Anderson Rugby Complex in West Point in NIRA action this weekend.

This is the final league game for both teams, and a chance to set the tone for what promises to be a hugely competitive playoff for the women's NCAA varsity DI competition.

(the game is to be shown live on ESPN+ at Noon ET here>>)

Harvard is coming off a loss to Dartmouth in which they outscored the Big Green in the second half. It was a weird game in some respects, partly in that little errors here and there cost Harvard dearly early, but when they started to secure possession with more consistency, were very tough to stop. The Crimson needed that pressure, said Head Coach Mel Denham after the game.

"I thought what really mattered was the second half and how a team can adapt with a really young team," Denham said. "The first half, we hadn't had that pressure yet this season, and so we just needed to feel that and make some adjustments and keep possession and move the ball."

What Denham is talking about it the schedule, which was somewhat backloaded for Harvard.

"We knew coming into this game we would not have seen a game we needed to see early one," said Denham. "In 2019 we played Army first-up, had a loss, and then you build from there. So we've really had to adapt and work to kind of create that pressure. So first half was our early-season game and instead of four weeks we had four minutes to adjust, and I couldn't be more proud of how they adapted and made those adjustments."

What the Harvard players then learned was that they needed a little extra in terms of retaining possession, and it's also worth remembering that they were in the Dartmouth 22 early and came away with no points. Against the top teams, those opportunities have to be taken.

Meanwhile, all of that happened to West Point a month before. That was when Army played Dartmouth and the tale of that game was quite similar—Dartmouth charged out ahead and seemed in control, and then the other team clawed back, but not quite far enough. The score then was 34-28 for Dartmouth. The score for Harvard was 45-31. 

Army currently sits at 4-1-1 and can move into 2nd in NIRA DI with a win. Led by a formidable second row pairing of Kaylee Cargile and Naomi Colin and with No. 8 Julia Riekena adding more ferocity to that unit they are physical up front and those physical players can operate in the open field, as well. Keep an eye, also, on freshman scrumhalf Emma Gamboa.

Harvard's pack is a little smaller and younger, and works best by working hard and fast, epitomized perhaps by Nafanua Fitisemanu on the flanker and Erica Jarrell at prop—not big players but players who can slot into open play, and hit breakdown after breakdown. It's worth noting that 2020 Sorensen Award finalist Cassidy Bargell did not start at scrumhalf for Harvard against Dartmouth but appears to be ready to go against Army. While she was ably filled in for, Bargell provides an extra spark as a runner and in her ability to set up what is a pretty potent backline—Brogan Mior and PK Vincze opened up the Dartmouth defense in the second half and Emma Kearney scored two tries on the wing.

So Army' defense out wide will have to be on target, while Harvard will want to avoid this game becoming a slugfest. And, really, no matter what happens, we'll likely see these two again.

NIRA Notes: Dartmouth takes on Brown in what promises to be an emotional game for the Bears after the death of their Head Coach, Kathy Flores.

Goff Rugby Report Editor Alex Goff speaks on the Brown Bears Podcast about Kathy Flores>>

Brown is also looking to preserve a playoff spot, and while Quinnipiac is only four standings points behind Brown, Brown has a game in hand. Both Quinnipiac (this week) and Brown (next week) play Mount St. Mary's.

In DII Queens has been unstoppable, going 11-0 in conference and non-conference games. They face the team they will likely play in the DII final, 2019 DII champs West Chester, in Philippi, WV this weekend.

DIII has been all about Bowdoin, but there is another spot in the final and it gets decided this weekend with Norwich taking on University of New England. The winner clinches 2nd.