This weekend marks the start of the Red River Region’s season in earnest. While they have played some games in various divisions, this round will see multiple teams from multiple divisions kick start their 2018-19 campaigns.
After a successful year in 2017-18, which saw the Red River Men’s Division III representatives, the Austin Blacks D3, win the National Championship, the Region has undergone some transformations and is looking to be quite a different competition to what they were mere months ago.
“We’ve got a number of clubs that have been promoted,” started Kirk Tate, President of the Texas Rugby Union. “We’ve seen San Antonio and West Houston move into Division I, it will be interesting to see how those new entrants do.”
Looking outside of the top division of men’s play, Tate is excited to see how the shifting of clubs up a division has a trickle-down effect to the other competitions. “In addition to those teams moving into Division I it creates a question of who is going to do well in division II and III… we had a departure from the union, the northern men’s division II clubs joined Mid-America to mitigate travel costs. Division II is really the wild west, as three of the four semifinalists last year are now either in a higher division or competing elsewhere.”
On the women’s side, the Austin Valkyries have been the dominant force. “The Austin Valkyries A and B are our Division I and II champions and have been for some while now.” As the season progresses it will be worth watching if Houston Athletic or the Dallas Harlequins will be able to catch them.
It is shaping up to be an interesting and hard to predict season. This weekend should provide some important insight as to how it will all shake down.
Exhibition Match: Austin Blacks vs. Houston SaberCats:
The feature game this weekend is not a regular season match, rather it is a preseason friendly between last year’s national semifinalists, the Austin Blacks and Houston’s MLR team, the SaberCats. The game will be played at the Blacks’ Burr Field. One of the best club venues in American club rugby. “I think we were the first club in the U.S to purchase our own grounds,” stated Alan Sharpley, Austin Blacks’ president. “We did that in 1980. We’ve got 30 acres with three fields and two are lit. We’re pretty proud of it.” Their facility has its own bar room and kitchen, and was built in an attempt to replicate club houses that are found within England.
Before the teams will be able to enjoy too many of the facilities features, they will first have to face each other on the field. While it may only be a friendly on paper, to the Blacks it serves a much more serious purpose. The Blacks have been dominant in the Red River over the past decade, with their only challengers coming from Dallas Rugby, and the Austin Huns in 2016-17 when they won the national championship. So, preseason serves as time when the Blacks can really challenge themselves and push to see what they can do, Sharpley explained; “Except for Dallas Reds which is always a brutal and physical game, we don’t see much competition; so we need more of that level of competition to stay on our game or get on our game. In the past few years we’ve used these professional sides to prepare ourselves in the preseason.”
After reaching the semifinals and falling four points short of the national championship, when asked if it is National Championship or bust this year, Sharpley responded, “I think it’s a reality. From all reports from our coaches- we will be better than we were last year.”
Helping them on their way back to the national championship race will be the likes of Vincent Dutton. The Flyhalf was a big factor behind their success last year. Capable with boot and ball in hand, Dutton crossed for 16 tries last year and was able to kick his fair share of penalties and conversions as well. Playing against the SaberCats, will be a good hit out and test run for Dutton and his backs to see if they’ll be able to recreate some of their magic again in 2018-19.
For the Sabercats, their season doesn’t begin until the end stages of January. However, after a disappointing inaugural campaign, they have been signing new players and staff bolstering their ranks. They will use opportunities such as these against quality outfits to sharpen their tools and set the platform for an improved performance in 2019.
Red River Men’s Division II: San Marcos Greys vs. West Houston Lions D2:
One of the most intriguing matches this weekend will come from the San Marcos Greys, West Houston Lions D2 fixture. What makes this game so interesting is the effect that the MLR and the Houston SaberCats will have over the squad strength and depth of the Lions, as a club. Since the end of the last season, the SaberCats have been using the Lions as a defacto feeder club. With the runoff effect, of having some MLR players playing week to week in the Lions Division I squad, it will be interesting to watch how that affects their lower squads. As the MLR season does not kick off until the end stages of January, these opening rounds of the Red River season could provide the best glimpse into the true colors of the Lions’ squad. Saturday will provide a good test for both teams as San Marcos is coming off an impressive 7-3 season in 2017-18 and will be a tough first game off the bat for the Lions’ D2 squad.
Red River Men’s Division II: Houston United vs Houston Athletic:
Two of the premier teams in Houston, Houston United and Houston Athletic, will square off in a fierce rivalry match. Last year Houston United won their two-game series 1-0-1. As they enter Saturday, Houston Athletic will be looking to get their season back on track after losing their first game of the season to The Woodlands Rugby. For Houston United, there would be no better way to start the season than by beating their rivals and pushing them down to a 0-2 start. Last year’s star for Houston United, Alex Liles, returns this year and will look to carve Houston Athletic up from the fullback position. Houston United will have to look out for Houston Athletic’s inside center, Thomas Johnston, who kicked off the season at a blistering pace scoring three tries in the opening round loss.
Red River Men’s Division IV North: Tyler Hoplites vs. Dallas Athletic Club D4:
In Men’s Division IV, one of the newest clubs in the domestic landscape takes to the pitch in their second year as they come up against Dallas Athletic D4 in their third game of the season. Tyler located two and a half hours outside of Dallas will be looking to find consistency this weekend. In their opening two games they seen massive fluctuations in their results. They opened the 2018-19 campaign with a resounding 92-26 win over the Dallas Diablos, but then fell to Alliance Rugby D4, 78-5. Dallas Athletic D4, contrarily, has only played one game- which they won in decisive fashion. Both teams finished 4-6 on the season last year, and split the series. If either team is going to improve upon last year’s performance Saturday’s game will be a good starting point.
Red River Men’s Division I: Dallas vs San Antonio:
Last year’s Men’s Red River Division II Champion, San Antonio find themselves in in the top flight of Red River competition. They do not have an easy debut as they will come up against Dallas Rugby, who last year were unable to capitalize on an extremely dominant regular season and just missed the national playoffs. In their ten regular season games last YEAR, Dallas accrued a point differential of 451 points, so San Antonio will be keeping themselves busy all day attempting to slow down the Reds’ rampant attack. The main point of attack last year was Dale Russ, who led the team in tries, crossing over twelve times. San Antonio will have some fire power of their own, through Ian Klaes who was a
hair shy of scoring 100 points last season. This will be a great measurement of how far San Antonio has come, or how far they still have to go in order to be competitive in the top echelon of Red River rugby.
Red River Men’s Division III: Galveston vs. Bay Area Rugby:
Last year’s Division III South winner, Galveston Rugby gets their 2018-19 season underway as they take on Bay Area Rugby who finished 3rd in the pool last year. Galveston were a force to be reckoned with last year, going 7-1 and hanging 45 or more points on their opposition in half of their games. Bay Area were on the receiving end of one of those scorelines in their first encounter; however, they were able to close the gap from a 42-point loss to a 5 point loss in their second game. If they can continue their trajectory into the new season it could make for a very interesting title race.