Sunday, September 20, 2009

Guilford Off to Strong Autumn Start

Guilford 15-14 Triad Men
Guilford 10-10 Elon

Guilford Rugby looks to boast the strongest competitive side in the club's history this year. The Quakers did enough to secure a win over 2008 D3 South Finalists Triad Rugby and drew with last year's top North Carolina D3 college club Elon Phoenix. What's more is they have also achieved a new goal for 2009 fall friendly matches, blooding as many new players as possible for a full second half.

Evolutions in the team are everywhere. The pack troubled a vastly larger Triad team in the scrum, often driving them backwards during their own put-ins, and winning all their own ball. Against Elon the Quaker pack won nearly every scrum of the day, no matter whose feed. Back row forwards have done excellent work in the rucks and cleanly transitioned to enhancing backline play with their presence. Flanker Kevin Smithey in particular has taken ownership of several touch-line sprints for impressive meterage. Now iconic in Guilford's forward crew, hooker Abel Montes de Oca has returned for what may be his last year at Guilford. The stout leader's beard alone has been said to deserve the #2 shirt.

A revelation for Guilford has come in the play of the back three unit, which now shows structured counter-attacks and fields high kicks well. Two tries in the match versus Triad came by way of fullback Maxwell George's clever play. Wingers for the team are almost entirely new, but offer some surprising athleticism and are taking to the game better than expected. Perhaps where Guilford looks strongest, however, is in the inside backs. Flyhalf Sean McNally has instantly meshed with his new team and showed his 6 years of rugby experience with classy distribution to the centers and smart probing with ball in hand. The pairing of McNally and former NCRU All-Star David McKindley-Ward (at 13) in the line was disastrous for Triad, who were fortunate to have no fewer than three tries averted by untimely penalties. McKindley-Ward, who scored Guilford's only try against a very tough Elon side, will be absent for much of the coming season, however, as he looks to gain experience in Ireland during the rest of the fall. His return for the Spring Matrix will be felt. Meanwhile, strong inside center Harrison Anthony has returned from a sidelining illness last year to bring much appreciated physicality and vision to the unit.

The pitfalls of the club so far have been dropped balls and growing pains. Tries that are deserved go unscored when needless 50-50 passes wind up on the wrong side of 50, and intently giving more than a few completely new players entire halves against proven and talented sides is always a risk. Guilford vs. Elon was frought with these kinds of passes and the score reflected it. The payoff, however, is a club that is closer-bound and will boast more depth when it is needed. Among other lessons of the last year, the Quakers have learned that the spring academic calendar can claim players as easily as injuries can, and the club has seen fit to let the fall friendlies play out as they may while rookies are given the proper grooming.

The club will only improve when Bryce Bjornson steps up to take back the reigns at center when McKindley-Ward vacations, and Max George's return from a shoulder injury should galvanize the group further.

Guilford will now look to fend off a very impressive Alumni selection this coming weekend.

Match Report by Nick "Too Broke to Battle" Hunter, Photos by Sarah Thabalt

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