MCRC Stuns Conference Rival Northeastern

By Tom Clayton

The Middlebury College Rugby Club (MCRC) edged Northeastern 23-20 on Saturday, Sept. 22, on the strength of three tries from fullback Allan Stafford ’13.5. Stafford completed his second hat trick in as many games with a run to the corner with five minutes left that gave the Blue the decisive five points.

The victory over the reigning East Coast Rugby Conference (ECRC) champions establishes MCRC as a power in the conference. At the onset of the match, however, as Northeastern took an early lead and the Blue struggled for field position in front of a boisterous home crowd, the victory was far from foretold.

“We felt we started the game not believing in ourselves,” said head coach John Phillips.

The MCRC side fell behind Northeastern 12-0 in the first ten minutes of play. Strong and physical on the line, the visiting Mad Dogs controlled play from the scrum to the margins of the field, breaking tackles and charting long runs into Blue territory.

“Early on we were caught off-guard by how fast and aggressive they were on attack,” said co-captain and All-American flyhalf Brian Sirkia ’12.5.

Gradually, Sirkia and the crew of Middlebury forwards took control of the ruck from the center of the pitch. Then, 16 minutes into the half, Sirkia and Stafford teamed up for the play that turned the course of the match in Middlebury’s favor.

Stafford recovered a precise downfield kick from Sirkia and brought it to the corner of the end zone.

“Our first try gave us enough confidence to settle down and play our style of game,” Sirkia said. “In the end, I think our fitness really paid off and gave us the extra bit to hang on to our lead.”

The sides patiently built attacks and traded points, including a second try from Stafford that put Middlebury ahead 18-17, 17 minutes into the second half.

But Northeastern quickly recaptured the lead on a penalty, and with the clock winding down the score stood at 20-17.

As thoroughly as the Mad Dogs dominated play in the opening minutes, MCRC, playing with equal parts poise and resolve, owned the match’s dramatic closing minutes.

“It’s not like football — you can’t stop the game and huddle up,” Phillips said. “The boys knew what they had to do and they did it well.”

Throughout the match, the Middlebury offense found room for advancement on the flanks of Northeastern’s big middle pack. With the match on the line, Phillips’ side returned to this touchstone attack when flyhalf Vince Mariano ’14 spun the ball wide to Stafford, who found the corner of the endzone to complete his hat trick and put the Blue ahead for good.

“We knew Stafford was great, but we didn’t realize he was quite that great,” Phillips said. “He has really made a difference for us so far this year.”

Throughout the match, a squad of substitutes, including Mariano and first-years Griffin Jones ’16, Aaron Yappert ’16 and Cole Baker ’16, reinvigorated the Middlebury starting 15. In the end, fitness and fresh legs gave the Blue the advantage over an experienced, skilled but exhausted visiting side.

The champion of the ECRC, a conference that includes Boston College, the University of Albany, the University of Connecticut, Southern Connecticut State University and the University of Massachusetts, will receive an automatic bid to the round of 16 in this year’s USA Rugby tournament in the spring.

Last year, an undefeated Northeastern side took the crown in the inaugural season of ECRC play. This season the conference is up for grabs, and in the team’s second season in Division I-AA, Middlebury feels poised to make a mark on the national stage.

“This win really shakes up the rankings in our conference and puts us in a good position moving forward,” said Stafford.

This weekend the MCRC will travel to Southern Connecticut to face another experienced conference rival.

Last September, the Panthers handily defeated Southern Connecticut by a score of 30-7.