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Ramblin' Jesters Take Rugbytown 7s. USA U23s Show Strong

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Ramblin' Jesters Take Rugbytown 7s. USA U23s Show Strong

EJ Freeman for the USA U23s against the SoCal Griffins. Photo USA Rugby.

The Rugbytown 7s finished off this weekend, showing once again how it's something special on the American rugby calendar.

Glendale, Colo. decided many years ago to hold a high-level men's 7s tournament not constrained by anything. It was for excellent teams, cobbled together at the last minute or playing regularly. It was showcasing good 7s, played in a stadium, at the same time of year every year. Its consistency has been a huge part of its success, and other events could learn from it.

For American high-level 7s, Rugbytown has been invaluable, providing a chance for up-and-coming players to get time in a competitive environment. This was where most of us first saw Carlin Isles. This was were many of the players who took the USA Men's 7s team to a place among the best in the world got their start.

This weekend, for GRR eyes were on the USA U23 team. In previous years, USA Rugby has normally sent a USA Falcons team. This time, they skewed a bit younger, putting out a team that was almost all (but not quite) college players. What we found out was that some of these college players are really very good. Playing against World Series players, and major professional teams, Noah Brown, EJ Freeman, Will Chevalier, Darius Law, Donovan Law, and Ryan Santos all showed they have at least flashes of what it takes at the international level. And we saw that out of players just barely out of high school, such as Peter Sio and Kahanu Koi.

Day One

The U23s went 3-0 in Pool Play on Day One.

Their connections and passing wasn't perfect, as expected from a team just recently assembled, bu they made up for that by working hard on defense and in support lines.

Noah Brown (Indiana) scored a key try and was huge in work rate, and both Law brothers (Life University) were effected as the USA U23s won their opener 26-0 over the AKUMA Cannibals. Then they took on the Tel Aviv Heat. After a slow start Nic Hardrict II (Lindenwood) blazed past the Tel Aviv defense to score a couple of key tries. Donovan Law's running in support of Clemson's Chris Aurich got a try for him and the U23s won that game 28-7.

In the third pool game EJ Freeman (Arizona) was a powerful presence and scored a brilliant try. While the British Columbia Bears did get over on a couple of tries, the U23s were resilient and won 29-14.

Day Two

In the final pool game on Day Two the U23s found themselves in a bit of battle. Still, the USA U23s scored right off the kickoff with the ball landing in the hands of Chevalier (Indiana), and he went in untouched. Former Eagle 7s star Matai Leuta got a try back for SoCal Griffins but then Koi (Rhinos Rugby Academy and LA Giltinis) finished off a superb team try. Santos scored on an interception and it was 21-6.

SoCal did score trice in the second half but they really weren't in it and the U23s won 35-19 to make it a 4-0 run.

The run continued in the Quarterfinals with a 26-12 win over Casanovas.

Day Three

But it was only getting harder. In the Cup Semifinals, against an experienced Tsunami Barbarians side, they struggled to make those little breaks happen. An early break by Freeman could have resulted in a try for Harvard's Santos but the pass was a shade forward and hard to handle anyway.

Another up-and-coming American player, Dmontae Noble (not that long out of Kutztown) broke through and around a couple of tacklers to score for the Tsunami Barbarians. The USA U23s scored on a superb team score. Hardrict fielded a deep kick that was supposed to go to touch. He bought time until his support got back, and then the ball went out to Brown, who ran a switch move with Donovan Law. The former Charlotte Tiger looked to be gone for a try but was dragged down. Still, Dalton Musselman (Penn State) was there in support and scored near the corner. Koi hit the conversion for a 7-5 USA lead.

The Barbarians retook the lead thanks to big physicality from their big guys, and then feeding Noble who inside-outed two defenders as he raced 60 meters for a 10-7 lead.

But once again the second half was better for the U23s. Musselman broke through from his own 22, tried to loft a pass away only to have a Barbarians knock it back into his hands. Finally the ball was sent wide to Hardrict, who was corralled by Noble. BUt Chevalier got the ball back, was tackled, and rolled the ball sideways from a backhand move. Darius Law picked it up and scored. Referee Kat Roche checked with her AR and was satisfied that it was a legal play. Try U23s, 12-10.

And then after some broken play the U23s made a couple of key tackles and a poach from Brown. Aurich made a break, flipped to Darius Law, and he smartly sent it wide to Hardrict, who was gone to seal the game 17-10.

So that set up the final against the defending champs Ramblin' Jesters.

Chevalier opened the scoring with a sneaky snipe from a scrum. The Ramblin' Jesters replied immediately with an excellent offload from former Eagle Tim Stnafill and finished by Wany van der Bank (New England Free Jacks). 

The Jesters got a bit of an unlucky yellow card after that and the U23s played perhaps their best sequence. They took about 90 seconds to score, but retained ball and worked their way down methodically before a sidestep and pass from Freeman put Brown away for a 12-5 lead. The jesters almost scored through Stanfill at the end of the half, but they changed ends 12-5.

Having gone through the tournament with the second half usually being the better half, the U23s perhaps would have swished for the same. Instead, the Jesters worked the ball nicely through the hands for Michael Adlard to crash over in the corner. Then the Jesters just put the pressure on. Eric Naposki, one of several former UCLA players on the Jesters side, came close. Finally Cian Barry (another former Bruin) dove over and a 15-12 lead.

Then another Bruin, Shane Barry, set the platform for Naposki to burst up the middle to score under the posts. Now it was 22-12 and and not enough time for the U23s. A bit too frantic led to a knock-on, and the Jesters were able to close it out from there.

It was a really strong team performance from the Ramblin' Jesters, with Tim Stanfill being the glue that linked the younger and older players. But for the USA U23 program, coached by Colton Cariaga and Ben Pinkelman, it was a really good weekend. Several players showed they have the goods and the desire. And almost as important, they got tough competition. Of the six teams the USA U23s played, four finished in the top six.

It's also worth noting that the standout players came from all over, with the Midwest showing well. Hardrict and Brown are from Indiana (Penn HS both), Chevalier is from Illinois (Neuqua HS), the Laws are from Charlotte (Charlotte Tigers), Musselman is from Pennsylvania (Bishop Shanahan). 

Order of Finish
Champions: Ramblin' Jesters
2nd: USA U23s
3. NAV 7s
4. Tsunami Barbarians
5. (Plate) Casanovas
6. Tel Aviv Heat 
7. All Army, US Navy (Army won the Armed Forces part of this competition).
9. (Bowl) Lions 7s
10. SoCal Griffins
11. Denver 7s, Gorilla Rugby
13. (Shield) BC Bears
14. Team Germany
15. All Marine Rugby, US Air Force