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UK, Louisville Make It an All-Kentucky NCR D1AA Final

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UK, Louisville Make It an All-Kentucky NCR D1AA Final

Cassie Redden photo.

It’s an all-Kentucky NCR D1AA final after Louisville garnered revenge for the 2022 championship loss to Virginia Tech, and Kentucky unleashed the Wildcat on Boston College.

So Saturday in Houston it will be Louisville vs Kentucky for the NCR title.

Cardinals Take Flight

Louisville continued it run of form, and winning close games. This time it was 29-22 and reflected a but of a sea change in how the Cardinals approached their rugby.  Much of that just had to do with experience and how the younger players started to trust their teammates and their system.

Virginia Tech ran out to a 10-0 lead, but as Louisville started to run hard and play wide they started to find tries. A nice flat pass from Brennan MortonStrauss to Connor Hayes put the outside center in at the corner. Lock Chris Jensvold’s touchline conversion made it 10-7. After that Louisville was stuck in the Virginia Tech end but the Hokies held on doggedly. Finally Jensvold punished a penalty in the scrum to tie it up.

With time in the first half winding down Louisville Tyler Redmon burst onto a flat pass to take the rock into the VT half. The Hokies held on, although it was a close-run thing. Finally, after another VT penalty, the Cardinals forwards went to work and Matthew Kramer picked up and launched himself to the line to put his side ahead 15-10 at the break.

The momentum was with Louisville now and when flanker Dylan Bylone picked scrumhalf Brandon Eng’s pocket off the back of a scrum the Hokies were in trouble. Bylone just kept going and scored to make it 22-10 and you could see Tech was frustrated.

Louisville’s tails were up and a quick tap in the middle of the field and snappy passing out to Liam Johnson, who took off down the sideline, burst through tacklers, and scored. Johnson converted his own try and Louisville was in control 29-10. More than 20 minutes remained but the Cardinals held on from there. Virginia Tech scored two late, but it was far, far too late, and the Hokies’ amazing playoff run (two straight NCR DIAA titles) was over.

Wildcats Over Eagles

Kentucky earned its GRR #1 ranking with a convincing 51-14 win over a game but overmatched Boston College. With a balanced attack that never fell off its front foot, Kentucky applied consistent pressure throughout the game, only allowing Boston College to score, despite a handful of chances, at the ends of each half.

Most impressive was Kentucky’s ability to complement aggressive pack play with a backline that offered only one knock-on the entire game. When their pack slowed, the backs swung the ball impressively, especially between the centers, and when their backs ran out of room their sizable pack went back to work. Kentucky held the ball almost 30 minutes in total throughout the first half, taking advantage of an athletic but smaller Eagle team that lacked continuity at the breakdown and suffered a day of untimely knock-ons each time they were within Kentucky’s 22.

BC was no slouch, coming into the game at 7-1 and scoring 67 points in their last two games. Kentucky’s crash defense, combined with a pack that was surprisingly fit, forced BC into a tactical kicking game that, had BC tackled at first contact, would have altered field position and momentum. But Kentucky showed poise and aggression, and their possessions after kick often went over 50 meters at a time.

Jack Phillips continues to develop as a flyhalf who understands kicking for territory (and executing it) and also took points when they were on offer. Their experienced front row, led by Jarred Monier, has started to control the contact area and the set piece. 

In open play Kentucky played with the ball with confidence, offloading and making good, flat passes so that usually players were moving onto the ball. The Keough brothers, Luke and Joe, worked together brilliantly. 

BC started 11 sophomores, signaling a bright future. Their challenge most likely will not be found in the Liberty Conference but in how to compete consistently with the bigger schools outside of the Northeast. Kentucky, who has recruited well in recent years, may become the benchmark in DIAA.  The first 25 minutes of the game was as clinically sharp as one hopes to see at this level – Louisville will have their hands full with Head Coach Sam Enari’s team if they are able to repeat this performance next week in Houston.