Tropical 7s Elite Boys: Rhino Wins, Surprise Berks Impressive
Tropical 7s Elite Boys: Rhino Wins, Surprise Berks Impressive
There were surprises throughout the Boys Elite U18 bracket at the Tropical 7s.
In a way, there was a sense of inevitability that there would be a surprise because the tournament had so many strong programs. Pool C's results, with EIRA Red and Rebel Rugby Academy both ending up 2-1—Rebel beat Atlantis Black but lost 10-7 to EIRA, who lost to Upright Rugby, who were beaten by Atlantis Black. The other Atlantis squad won Pool A with a 3-0 record, while Rhinos Academy won Pool B, with Berks County coming in second.
So the tournament was full of select sides, while Berks, which fielded a side made up mostly of the players who suit up for their regular 15s HS club team, found themselves in the middle of it.
In the playoffs, Rhinos edged a talented Pioneer 7s team (winners of the NAI 7s U18 Open division) 12-7, and just got by EIRA Red 19-17 to make the final. Rhinos, who have benefited from the coaching of former South Africa 7s team stars Cecil Afrika and Frankie Horne (see video interview) , had taken a big step forward.
And they played ... Berks. Second in Pool B, Berks was not expected to bypass the likes of EIRA, Rebel, Atlantis, and USA South Panthers. But they did.
A Pennsylvania high school club team founded in 2018, Berks has been building a reputation as a top 7s program too. Berks originated as a U13 program in 2016, and added a U15 program in 2017. The players who started on those teams provide the nucleus of the high school 7s team and its success. That group of kids has won a state championship at every level: U13 (15s), U15 (15s and 7s), and high school (7s).
“The boys wanted to shoot higher,” said Head Coach Greg Stelluti. “ Last summer and fall was a breakout year for the Berks 7s team. They won seven out of the nine tournaments they entered, including the New York 7s premier division and the RugbyPA 7s State Championship."
They also finished 4th in the U18 Open division at the NAI 7s.
While at the New York 7s, Berks played a very good Upright Rugby Rogues team twice and were victorious in both games. Stelluti met their coach, Tyler Leggatt, and had several conversations with him in New York. According to Stelluti, “Tyler is a fantastic guy and runs such a great program. He told us how impressed he was with us as a club team from Pennsylvania, competing at such a high level. He encouraged us to step up to the Elite division and I cannot thank him enough for his support and encouragement.”
When planning for Tropical 7s, Stelluti asked his team what division they wanted to play in and without hesitation, they said Elite. Playing as Berks County Rugby, the team did bring in three guest players for Tropical 7s, so they are not an exactly replica of their club team. Their Tropical 7s roster was made up of nine players who play regular league rugby for Berks County Rugby, one who plays 15s for another club and 7s for Berks, one player who plays 15s for another club and joins Berks for the big 7s tournaments, and one player joining Berks for the first time.
Berks was ready to take the leap and didnt expect anything to be easy, but when the schedule was released they saw their first game to be Eagle Impact Rugby Academy.
“I think I was more nervous than the players were,” said Stelluti. “If we were going to have one advantage, it would be that almost all our kids have been playing together in the same system for the last two years. It also doesn’t hurt that we have some stud athletes.”
Not all of Berks players are used to playing 7s with each other. Berks sophomore, Ulices Ramirez, started playing rugby in January, and had never played a 7s game.
“The kid had a great tournament," said Stelluti. "He was not nervous at all, and went out there and played great rugby. It was very impressive because he had never played 7s before the EIRA game”
Game 1 - Berks vs. EIRA Navy
Two minutes in Berks opened the scoring when prop Diohnny Ruiz took it 60 meters for a try. EIRA put up a try shortly thereafter, cutting the lead to 7-5 at halftime. The second half opened with Berks holding the ball for multiple phases until hooker Leo Delannoy burst up the middle for a long try to give Berks a 14-5 lead. Berks played ferocious defense throughout the game with Cole Boyer, Aiden Pavlek, Jake Stelluti, Baylor Kobularcik, Finn McArdle, Cole Patterson, Eli Ross, and Ulices Ramirez all putting continuous pressure on the EIRA attack. Wing Steven Flinton finished the game with a long try and a 19-5 Berks win.
Game 2 - Berks vs. Gorilla
Gorilla came out fast from the opening whistle, putting Berks on their heels and scoring early. This is the sort of game where a team new to this level might quake a little, but the Berks players remained composed and scored a quick try of their own through center Anthony Bourassa. Up 7-5 Berks continued to control possession and turned up the defensive pressure. The pressure led to two tries from Ruiz, two from Steven Flinton, and one from Delannoy to win it 36-5.
Game 3 - Berks v. Rhino Rugby Academy
The game started out tight and the first half ended with Rhino on top 17-7, with Delannoy scoring the only Berks try. Rhino was fast and aggressive in the second half, forcing Berks to make several errors and those errors led to 24 unanswered points for Rhino and the 41-7 victory.
But at 2-1 Berks had done enough to make the quarterfinals.
Quarterfinals: Berks vs. Rebel Rugby Academy
The quarterfinal was a very tight and physical match. Rebel was big, fast, and skilled and Berks needed everything they had to hang with them. Berks struck first with another long try by Bourassa, followed by another try from Ruiz to make it 14-0. Rebel didn’t quit and rattled off three straight tries to take a 15-14 lead. Berks responded well and two more tries from Ruiz, with the conversions, put his side up 28-20. The conversions were critical as Rebel came back and scored right at the end of the game to make it 28-27. It wasn't enoguh. Eli Ross and Finn McArdle provided the difference with their goalkicking.
Semifinals: Berks vs. Atlantis Elite
With Atlantis drawing many of their players from Pennsylvania, this game had a little extra juice to it—at least it did for Berks. This game had some players who had just played 15s with each other on Sunday now playing against each other. There were even coaches who had played together as teammates now coaching against each other. The game was physical and even a bit fiery, with a few scuffles along the way, and the action was back-and-forth as well. Berks took a 19-10 lead into the final moments of the game through tries by Flinton, Ruiz, and Delannoy. Atlantis put one down but didn't have enough time to try to complete a comeback. Berks 19, Atlantis 15.
Final: Berks vs. Rhino Rugby Academy
Rhino was 5-0 on the day and Berks 4-1 as the top two teams from Pool B met once more. Rhino had won convincingly the first time and played superb defense in this game. They scores early, punished a mishandled ball for another, and punished a second-half yellow card with a quick-strike offense to win 31-0.
‘Rhino was very good,” said Stelluti. “Their size, speed and skill were tough to handle for the entire game. Their entire organization was extremely impressive to watch throughout the tournament.”
But Berks was the surprise. It's rare to see what is essentially a group of players who play regular HS club rugby together beat these academy and select sides, but that is essentially what happened. Through it all their goalkicking was a crucial piece of the puzzle. In their four wins Berks kicked more conversions than their opposition, often using that to put pressure on teams (see their opening game when it was only two tries to one, but 14-5, and their semifinal, when again they led by only a try, but by two scores because of their conversions). Their quarterfinal game was won because Berks converted all four tries, while Rebel scored five tries, but could only convert one.
Final Tropical 7s Elite U18 Boys Standings:
Champions: Rhino Rugby Academy
2nd: Berks County
3rd: EIRA Red
4th: Atlantis Elite
5th: Rebel Rugby Academy
6th: USA Rugby South Panthers
7th: Atlantis Black
8th: Pioneer 7s
9th: Upright Rugby
10th: EIRA Navy
11th: Rock Rugby Academy
12th: Gorilla Rugby