2018 NIRA Tier One Championship Weekend Preview

This weekend, November 16-18, the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (NIRA) will be hosting their Tier One championship weekend, at Dartmouth College. This comes a week after Mount St. Mary’s claimed the Tier Two title, 22-15, over Sacred Heart. Two semifinals will be played on Friday and the championship match played to be on Sunday. The semifinals will see Army take on hosts Dartmouth and three time defending champions Quinnipiac playing Harvard. It promises to be a weekend displaying some of the best talents in collegiate rugby going head to head. All games will be available to watch through ESPN +.

Army vs. Dartmouth:  

2018 could be the year of redemption for Dartmouth, after their heart-breaking loss in last year’s championship to Quinnipiac. In last year’s championship game Dartmouth held an early 15-0 lead. However, feeding off the home crowd energy Quinnipiac were able to mount the comeback and secure the title. This year, with the home crowd being on their side, Dartmouth will fancy their chances. Before they get too far ahead of themselves, they know they have to get by a tough Army side first, a team they have already beaten and learned a lot from once this year.

“We’re excited to play them again because they have a good kicking game and know how to play territory, so we have been working a lot on that,” explained Dartmouth Head Coach Katie Dowty. The other valuable lesson that they learned from their earlier encounter is how to play in the wet and wintery conditions. This will come in handy over the weekend, as the high all weekend is expected to be 34 degrees with temperatures dropping as low as 23. With such brutal conditions controlling where the game is played will be even more important than usual.

While Dartmouth learned the importance of playing in wet and dreary conditions, for Army they learned the hard way the importance of conversions and protecting the ball. In a 26-20 game where each team scored four tries, the difference came down to missed kicks. However according to Army’s coach, Bill LeClerc the game was really lost in the turnover battle. “They’re [Dartmouth] really good at capitalizing off turnovers and that’s what they did to us. They’re good on their ground game- they turned the ball over on us 27 times. You can’t expect to win a game when you turn the ball over that many times, nor do you deserve to.” Despite the disparity in the turnover ratio LeClerc believes they are two evenly matched sides and it’s all there to play for come Friday.

The difference in the number of turnovers isn’t the only lopsided comparison that can be drawn between the teams, as the records each team possess are starkly different. Dartmouth has had a nigh perfect season sitting at 7-1 and Army sits at 4-4. According to Dowty, their record is the reflection of a maturing side that is feeling more at ease with their systems. For LeClerc his record is a reflection of a tough out of conference schedule they played. The Schedule included playing 2018 D1 Elite Runners Up, Life University; and 2017 D1 Elite National Champions, Penn State. While those close games didn’t pan out for Army, LeClerc believes they will serve his side well this weekend.

One massive difference maker in the game will be Dartmouth’s recently capped USA Eagle, Emily Henrich who rejoins her team in time for the championship weekend. As a powerful runner and a tenacious defender, her presence in the middle of the field is going to have an enormous impact on the game. However, while Dowty is excited to see Henrich back she knows her team is more than just one player. “We’re obviously happy to have her back. But the thing with Emily is that she just plays. She gets us great go forward, but we have a lot of backs in the backline that are of a similar caliber and play so well of each other.”

Army similarly will be looking for a team effort to pull them through their semifinal matchup. However, it will be a tall order for them considering how young the team is. There are eight players in the lineup playing their first year with the program; but LeClerc has faith in them and in his leaders on the team to pull them through. “We’ve got a pretty settled lineup now. Everyone seems to be pretty healthy, but looking through the team we have eight first year players who are all pretty experienced. Gio Ferguson-Lewis is always up for a challenge. Sammy Sullivan is back out on the wing, in her natural habitat and running really powerfully.”  
Both coaches know that this weekend the key to winning the initial match and the following encounter will be to stick within their systems, rely on depth carrying them through and to manage the elements as effectively as possible.

Harvard vs. Quinnipiac:

Two teams with an intimate knowledge of semifinals are Harvard and Quinnipiac and Harvard. Both teams were at this stage of the competition last year, but with varying degrees of success. Harvard fell short to Dartmouth, while Quinnipiac went through their semifinal to win the entire competition. This year Harvard looks to turn the tide.

Harvard has already begun the process of reversing their results from last year. As this year, they have built upon a successful 2017 campaign to find themselves at an impressive 7-1. In a similar fashion to their Ivy League counterparts, Dartmouth, Harvard’s Head Coach Mel Denham credits an experienced team comfortable in their own skin. “this team has a strong set of leaders. They have set themselves some goals to be improving every day and training with the right intensity. Keep our eyes off the outcome and keep focusing on the day to day.” Leadership will be key to their success this weekend as if they are to win the championship they will have to overcome two extremely talented sides.

Quinnipiac, despite being the three time reigning champions, don’t feel any added pressure to perform this weekend. Similarly, they are adopting an approach similar to Harvard’s. Take care of the little things and once they have fallen into place, they will lead to achieving the bigger picture, or as Quinnipiac Head Coach, Becky Carlson puts it: “I think the goals are always the same. You just want to take it one game at a time. I don’t think we’ve ever really had it in our mantra that we’re out for the national championship. You really just have to play every single minute. That’s what we’re really gunning for.”  

Friday won’t be the first time these two teams have faced each other this year, in fact it won’t be the second either; it will be the third time. On the prior two occasions, it has been Harvard walking away with the spoils. For Harvard, the big lesson they have taken away from their prior two wins is, the most important game is yet to be played. They can’t go into Friday thinking the game has already been won. Denham explaining, “Never underestimate an opponent. Yeah, we have beat them two times in the season, but the third time we have to go out there knowing the game could be anyone’s and not underestimating them.” For Quinnipiac, they are looking at the set piece as their biggest teaching tool. “We’ve taken away a lot just from the set pieces alone and sharpened our craft as the year has gone on,” noted Carlson.

Another area that Carlson thinks her team can focus on is the production out of the backline. Harvard has been effective in stymieing any go forward or creativity that Quinnipiac has attempted to bring to the table. For Carlson, she’s been challenging her backs to kick things up a gear this weekend. “We haven’t seen a lot from our backline the last couple of times we’ve played Harvard. They’ve done a pretty decent job of stifling any of the work outside of 13.”  

Harvard is expecting a response from Quinnipiac, considering the quality of the side, but also due to their pedigree and penchant for being able to save their best for the playoffs. De
nham noting, “I think they come out strong in the postseason. They come out harder faster than you usually see from them in the regular season. We’re prepared for a grind for 80 minutes.”

Both teams are expecting it to be a tightly contested battle, and with the elements predicted, they know it will only make gaining the edge that much harder. Harvard will be looking to their core leadership group comprised of seniors to help shepherd the team towards victory. Quinnipiac will be looking for leadership too, although having lost Ilona Maher to graduation last year, they’ve developed some new core leaders according to Carlson. Those leaders include Emily Roskopf their captain, and Mikah Maples. Both coaches are expecting a great game and are excited to exhibit the strength of play within the NIRA Conference.

It will be a memorable weekend filled with great contests throughout.

ESPN +’s Schedule For the Weekend: 

Semifinals, Friday-11/16: 
12pm ET Army vs. Dartmouth

2PM ET Quinnipiac vs. Harvard

Championship Game, Sunday-11/18: 1pm ET