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Thomas More, Adrian Win, UNI, Norwich Brave in Defeat

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Thomas More, Adrian Win, UNI, Norwich Brave in Defeat

Thomas More started strong early. Ollie Mide photo.

Thomas More is in the Men’s D2 college final after beating Northern Iowa 73-20 in Friday’s semifinal at Aveva Stadium in Houston.

It was a game that Thomas More took control of early.

“The guys played the game plan and it was about communication more than anything else,” said Thomas More Head Coach John Fox. “Talk, work together, be in support.”

Saints prop Hudson Montgomery said the team had started slowly in other games so they made sure they didn’t do that this time around.

“We wanted to make sure we came out firing.”

That they did, and they added physicality, too and in fact it was a massive tackle that jarred a ball loose that led to More’s opening try—flanker Bautista Saint Bonnet making sure they won that first ruck and then following up to score.

Right after that score Northern Iowa found out about the wind. A high restart kick was blown back so that it didn’t go the required 10 meters. Scrum Thomas More, eightman pick from Tomas Casares, and the big, rangy No. 8 rambled right then left and fended off several tacklers to score from 50.

Thomas More kept using the wind to back kicks deep into UNI territory. Occasionally it backfired, with the kick rolling dead, but more often than not it put Nothern Iowa under intense pressure. Casares finally scored after ripping the ball free from UNI hands. Nothern Iowa did have some early chances, but little errors crept in. Thomas More led 40-10 at halftime.

“We went against the wind and we were just in a hole early,” said UNI captain Kaleb Boleyn. “Not an excuse. They played well and we made some mistakes, but it was tough. We just didn’t really start strong.”

The Saints, with Dylan Weir and Matias Caramuti pulling the strings at the halfback hinge, used the wind when they needed to, and fought it correctly, as well. 

Thomas More cruised from there—too big, too athletic, and too polished. Northern Iowa is the only club team in the final four, and showed they can play rugby, making it a much closer contest in the second half. 

The Saints will face the Bulldogs on Sunday as Adrian held off a determined Norwich 36-22 in the final, and best, game of NCR’s Friday slate of semifinal games.

The teams were evenly-matched in many ways, with Norwich’s brave defensive play the highlight. Adrian’s size and power were evident. They thought attack every time they touched the ball and they hit very hard. But the smaller Norwich players tackled around the knees and didn’t miss, making things tough on Adrian.

Both teams had chances to score early but it wasn’t until the 13th minute that anyone did. Lock Henry Green went on a big gallop for Adrian and looked like a center cutting through the line for the opening try.

Norwich was back pressuring Adrian after that and flyhalf Leo Clayburgh slotted a penalty to make it 5-3. Back came Adrian, this time with Green setting up flyhalf Sione Mamata to race in. It became clear that Adrian just perhaps needed to settle down and be patient.

“We’re young,” said Head Coach Benny Mateialona. “Maybe they felt it being on this big stage, but they were a little impatient, and didn’t quite play the way we normally do.”

Maybe also Norwich got in their heads, as the Cadets just kept making tackles, making it difficult for Adrian to make any more headway. Whether it was surprise or frustration or, as Mamata said later, just sloppy play, the Bulldogs were shunted back and a series of Adrian penalties set up a chance for a lineout and maul for Norwich, with lock Jeromy Henning nabbing the throw and keeping it as his forwards drove him over. Clayburgh was good on the kick and it was a 10-10 ballgame.

And then more penalties put Norwich near the Adrian line and Clayburgh sidestepped around two rushing defenders and stretched over. Norwich 17 Adrian 10 at halftime.

The game continued along those lines. Adrian would send players like props Ethan Schroeder and Akexander Tuatua along with No. 8 Michael Pakofe, looking to suck in Norwich defenders. Finally rhey got what they were looking for, and Tuatua was a little space and a little momentum and crashed over. In typical fashion he did so with a Norwich player hanging onto his ankles.From the restart Adrian attacked quickly, sending it wide and hoping to put the game away with a massive break from Mamata, who then linked up with fullback Sam Williams with a brilliant one-handed offload. 

Now Adrian had the lead and the momentum 22-17.

Sorry, not so fast. Runs from No. 8 Jack Tellifson and flanker Ben O’Brien set them up and then a charge and offload from Arthur Martinez got him close. As the big prop was taken down he executed a lovely pass off the floor to wing Brantley Ledbetter for the try, perhaps the best of the day.

It was 22-22 with 19 minutes left.

But the big charges from the Adrian forwards had taken a toll. Slowly the Bulldogs were able to break through. With five minutes to go the Cadets were on the front foot. Norwich went wide but a big tackle loosened the ball and center McGregor Adams was gone. Then Mamata broke a couple of tackles and he, too was gone. 

In the final five minutes Adrian ran in two massive tries and took the game 36-22. But it was much, much closer than that. It was a battle of epic proportions and both sets of fans were wiping away tears, for different reasons surely, but also because of a shared sense of pride.

“It was close, we almost had it, but that’s rugby,” said Clayburgh philosophically.

Added Williams of Adrian, "there's a lot of people limping at the moment; kind of says how hard they hit."

Adrian moves on to the final.