BOULDER, Colo. -- It is no surprise New Orleans Rugby Football Club is again in the USA Rugby Men’s Division I National Club Championship picture.
The Louisiana club was the only non-Elite Cup team in the 2013 Emirates Airline Division I final four and finished third with a win against the Denver Barbarians at Infinity Park at Glendale. Prior to that, NOLA won the 2011 Division II championship and the 2012 Division III championship with its B-side.
NOLA’s success has been a long time in the making, though, beginning with the introduction of high school rugby in Louisiana in 2001. Currently, nine high schools in Louisiana compete in the Deep South Rugby Conference with two schools from Mississippi and Florida.
“Our player core now with the club began playing together as an all-star team in high school playing as the Louisiana Exiles that went to Denver and won the U19 all-star tournament three years in a row,” NOLA Head Coach Trip McCormick said. “Most of those guys ended up going to LSU, some went off other places. Two or three ended up playing on the U20 National Team, and the guys who didn’t play on the National Team played on the west collegiate all-stars and all kinds of other select sides around.
“They’ve all come home now, so to speak, and are playing for the club. I do think it’s a natural progression but I think it was started with the high school league with the intention of really creating a feeder program for the club.”
NOLA was strengthened during the 2013-14 season with former All-Americans Adam Ducoing, Cameron Falcon, Ryan Fitzgerald, Cullen Glennon, and Bobby Johns, each of whom played a role in the club’s 14-1-1 year – its first in the Red River Conference. NOLA won the conference championship with 77 points, five more than the second-place Dallas Reds.
The Reds drew with NOLA, 12-12, in the first match of the season back in November, but the team bounced back with a hefty, 52-17, defeat of the Griffins. A few big scorelines later, including a 100-0 demolishing of The Woodlands, kept the club at the top of the conference standings.
In its sixth match, however, NOLA faltered. Houston Athletic Rugby Club, which finished the season in fifth with a .500 record, welcomed McCormick’s men to Texas with a stingy defensive effort to earn a 22-17 win.
“We still aren’t sure what happened that day,” McCormick said. “They played an excellent game, especially defensively. They planned a gameplan that really bottled us up.”
NOLA was leading 10-8 at the half, but HARC scored tries in the 48th and 76th minutes and kept NOLA at bay to take a stranglehold on the match. Glennon did his part to get a try in 79th minute, but it was not to be for the conference leaders.
NOLA rebounded from its loss, though, finishing the season on a 10-match winning streak, outscoring opponents 499-99 on its way to the conference championship.
The move to the Red River Conference – consisting of NOLA and eight clubs from Texas – may have helped NOLA, whose South Conference in 2012-13 consisted of Division I Champion Life and the Atlanta Renegades.
“I think that both contests with the Dallas Reds – we tied them in November in Dallas and then they came over here just a couple weeks ago and played a really tough, physical game in the rain,” McCormick said. “The Austin Blacks, at the very end of the season, really came on. They ended up beating the Reds, played us very, very close in New Orleans. They are always going to be a tough team.”
The second meeting between NOLA and the Dallas Reds proved the difference in the final Red River standings. Heading to New Orleans, Dallas held an 11-1-0 record, compared to NOLA’s 12-1-1. The Louisiana club had just Dallas and HARC on its remaining fixtures list, with the Reds carrying three games in hand.
“That last Dallas Reds game at home was certainly the one that we circled on the calendar and looked at that game as the pinnacle of our season, which, to this point, it kind of has been,” McCormick said.
NOLA took a 6-0 lead after just 11 minutes and did not relinquish it, giving the Reds their only loss of the season to date. The win put NOLA on 66 points heading into its final match, an 88-0 defeat of HARC. After the loss to NOLA, Dallas beat HARC to get to 61 points with two matches remaining, meaning gathering the maximum five points from each of the final two matches would have put both NOLA and the Reds on level terms.
NOLA had the tiebreaker, however, with a win and a draw against the Reds, not to mention it did not matter as Dallas fell to third-place Austin Blacks in its penultimate match of the season. The Red River Championship was heading to Louisiana.
The club will head back to Dallas next weekend for the Division I West playoffs, where it will face the winner of this weekend’s NorCal championship match between the Sacramento Lions and Santa Rosa.
There is not Elite Cup this year, but NOLA is expecting tough competition on the Road to Madison, anyway, with the likes of Life, Old Blue of New York, New York Athletic Club, and Metropolis all littering the path. Having faced fresh opposition all season long, McCormick plans to prepare his team the same as any match.
“Out of all of the things that go into a rugby game, the biggest source of confidence for us is what we live and die on week in, week out,” McCormick said. “They’re the kind of things that are not particularly variable: those two things primarily are defense and fitness. You can count on those things week in, week out, even if something’s not clicking in attack, or your kicker’s not on, or your lineout’s not working. Those things you can fall back on and at least know you’re going to be in the game and be able to compete and make adjustments as you go through.”
For the next foe, NOLA will go into Dallas blind, not having seen either of Sacramento and Santa Rosa play this season.
“We’ve got the rugby IQ, especially in our decision-makers, to adapt our game to what we find out in the first 10 or 15 minutes,” McCormick said. “Until we figure that out, it’s just defense. I think the best way to figure out what a team does and what they’re good at, what they’re going to do, is coming at them 100 miles an hour on defense and go from there. That’s really all we can do.
“We just have to rely on the basic systems that we have in place and just see what’s in front of us and make adjustments as we go.”
NOLA’s captain and leader is Jarrett Falcon, the older brother of Cameron. Falcon scored 56 points in 13 of his team’s 16 games, including a hat trick against Fort Worth near the end of the season, but brought much more to the table for NOLA.
Hear Head Coach Trip McCormick’s thoughts on NOLA captain Jarrett Falcon:
McCormick, a lawyer, has been with the club since he moved to New Orleans in 2001. Assisted by Wes Eustis, Todd Fitzgerald, and Geoff Ormsby on the coaching staff, McCormick has put together a plan of attack for any opponent, be it a club competing in the Elite Cup or a select side from New Zealand or Australia.
“Todd, Geoff, Wes, and I, to a certain extent, are peers as players,” the head coach said. “It’s kind of a unique setup in that sense. I think [we], having played rugby in the States for as long as we have, are a little bit more aware of the kind of stature and history of the clubs we’re playing against.
“One of the things I love about coaching guys from Louisiana is that a lot of that stuff they just don’t care about. They don’t care if they’re playing The Woodlands, or the Baton Rouge Rugby Club, or NYAC, or Life. They don’t get star-struck. They go out and they play hard. I really like that about coaching these guys.”
With two matches standing between the club and the Division I National Championship Final, it does not matter who the opposition is – NOLA has its sights set on Breese Stevens Field in Madison, Wisc.