Rugby Team Wins Rio Grande Collegiate Title
Thursday, May 10, 2018
SOCORRO, N.M. – New Mexico Tech’s Men’s Rugby Team won the 2017-2018 Rio Grande Rugby Football Union Collegiate Championship before a home crowd on Saturday, April 21, beating rival University of New Mexico Lobos 20-17.
“The boys were focused from the kickoff,” said NMT Captain and senior inside center Tanner Graham after the match. “We were disciplined in defense – everyone doing his job and supporting his teammates in attack.”
While both teams are members of the Rio Grande R.F.U., UNM also competes in the Rocky Mountain Division of USA Rugby’s D1A National College competition. NMT has remained independent, largely due to its small student population. NMT will, however, join the National Small College Rugby Organization next fall, which provides a pathway for national competition for small colleges.
NMT was hungry for the win after UNM had handed NMT its first and only conference loss of the season in February.
“The boys had enjoyed an unbeaten streak since August the previous year. But In our first meeting with the Lobos back in February, we lost our discipline for about 15 minutes, and the Lobos made us pay,” coach Brent Nourse said. “At the championship tournament, we knew what we had to do, we had a very specific plan for the match, and the boys executed.”
Earlier in the day, both NMT and UNM enjoyed victories over the third and fourth seeded schools; University of Texas El Paso and New Mexico State University, respectively, with matches on the day shortened to 25 minute halves. NMSU won the third place match against UTEP.
Heading into the finals, NMT was missing its starting winger, Essiel “E.Z.” Carrasco, a potent attacking and defensive force on Tech’s right wing.
“Losing E.Z. was problematic,” Nourse said. “We like to set up in the middle and attack the wings, and he is a big part of that attack.”
NMT was forced to make adjustments to its backline, placing Sean Reed on the wing and Nigel Ruckhaus at No. 10.
“I was confident, however, that the boys would fill the gaps nicely and trust the system,” said Nourse. And they did.
(Pictured at right: NMT Winger Sean Reed tackles a UNM player. NMT's stiff defense was a key to Tech's victory.)
Although a ball handling error by NMT from the kickoff led to a UNM scrum on NMT’s 22 in the first minute of the match, NMT were otherwise the aggressor and playing on the front foot from the start. Notwithstanding the loss of Carrasco, NMT went about its business, setting in the middle with pods and attacking the wings.
And their efforts were rewarded mid-way through the first half with two well-worked tries; the first by No. 9 Logan Blake picking from the back of a ruck just outside the UNM try-zone, and the second by Reed finishing off a movement to the left wing. Neither try was converted.
Momentum in the match turned just before half time, though, following a dangerous tackle by NMT winger Zach Lepper, which resulted in a yellow card. UNM pressed the advantage, scoring a nicely crafted try in the left corner just before halftime. After UNM converted the try, NMT held a 10-7 lead.
The second half started just as the first half ended, with UNM continuing to take advantage of the 14-man NMT side. Shortly into the second half, UNM took the lead, again stretching the NMT defensive line, allowing UNM’s fullback to cut through a gap on the right wing for UNM’s second try.
NMT regained momentum five minutes later. Following the end of NMT’s yellow card suspension, NMT regained control of the match. NMT was able to maintain possession and attack within UNM’s 22 for several minutes before Graham committed two UNM defenders and made a nifty offload to lock Everson Cruz for NMT’s third try of the match. Flyhalf Nigel Ruckhaus converted the try placing NMT back in the lead 17-12.
UNM was not done, however. Once again, UNM exposed NMT on the right wing, bringing the score level at 17 with about 10 minutes left in the match.
“After the try, we knew Nigel could convert a penalty if provided the opportunity. We made the decision to keep the ball near the middle of the pitch to give him one,” Blake said.
With only a few minutes left, NMT was awarded a penalty, and Ruckhaus converted, placing NMT back into the lead 20-17.
Although UNM fought hard in the last minutes of match following NMT’s penalty conversion, time ran out on the Lobos.
“What a game,” UNM head coach Tom Goslau said. “We definitely entertained the spectators with that one!”
After the match, Graham lauded UNM as well as his team. “We endured waves of attack from a seasoned UNM team,” he said. “But even when UNM took the lead, we were able to collect ourselves and keep our heads. Many guys stepped up their level of play for this one, including Man-of-the-Match [NMT No. 8] Tadeo Herrera, who’s determined running and defense were pivotal.”
NMT rugby alumnus and current professor Taylor Dotson saw the win as a sign of things to come, stating, “Tech’s win was gritty and physical, earned through aggressive line breaks and smart offloading. The result is a hopeful sign of future success as Tech joins national-level competition next year.”
– NMT –