Rugby to take on Vermont
With rain and wind predicted to consume the pitch on Saturday, the Massachusetts rugby team prepares to weather the storm that is Vermont and move one step closer to the New England Championship, and a birth in the national tournament.
The No. 25 Minutemen (9-1), who are the top seed in the NEC tournament, are now winners of five straight matches having persevered through the New England Rugby Football Union tournament and won handily against Southern Connecticut last Saturday, 27-0, in their quarterfinal match.
A win against the fifth-seeded Catamounts would pit UMass in a championship battle against little known Stony Brook or No. 1 Middlebury, the team it triumphed over to grab the NERFU Championship.
The Minutemen were on the right end of a lopsided match, last weekend, in which they scored four second-half tries to rout the eighth-seeded Owls (7-2).
Vermont is likely to present tougher competition to the Minutemen than Southern Connecticut did. Vermont averages a hefty 37.2 points per match this season while giving up 11.1, yet have seen its numbers fall since the playoffs, averaging 20 points and giving up an average of seven in four games (3-1).
Although its offensive numbers dropped recently, Vermont’s tenacious attack has remained formidable. The Catamount’s two losses this season came at the hands of conference rival Middlebury, including an opening day loss to the Panthers on Sept. 19 and another in the NERFU semifinals on Oct. 31, but not without resistance.
“They had Middlebury up against their own goal-line for most of their match,” UMass coach Al Baker said.
Both games were decided by six points and played on Middlebury’s home turf. The two losses are the only blemishes on Vermont’s record this season. The Catamounts managed to bounce back nicely following defeat as they routed Boston University, 47-5, on Nov. 1 to capture the fifth seed in the NEC tournament. It then topped Buffalo State, 46-21, in the quarterfinals on Saturday
Vermont brings a sizable squad into Amherst on Saturday. Baker believes his team will match the Catamounts in stature and gain an advantage in its speed.
Last week, the Minutemen were a bit giddy on the onset of the match, forcing the action and making unsound plays that led to turnovers. Baker urges his ruggers to let the game come to them as they will look to find a weakness in Vermont’s attack.
“We’re going to continue to pressure Vermont with our forwards,” Baker said. “[We want to] try and get their backline to commit to forwards’ attack and create opportunities for the backs.”
The Catamount’s offensive assault tallied eight tries last Saturday. However, Baker is not worried about matching their scoring as UMass managed 32 points per game this season. Its attack is split evenly between its backs and forwards on 54 scoring tries this season.
If Baker and his team are nervous about anything, it is the adverse weather forecast. With a 90 percent chance of rain and a lot of wear and tear on their home-field in the past month, the Minutemen hope that their terrain will not be an impediment in the four matches they will host this weekend.
UMass will play two games on the weekend. If it loses, it will play on Sunday for a chance to make the national tournament this spring. With a win, the Minutemen will take on the winner of Stony Brook and Middlebury for the Northeast Championship.
UMass handled Middlebury on Nov. 1 for the NERFU championship, 34-3, and is prepared to face a revamped Panther attack.
“I’m sure Middlebury wants another shot at us and will prepare better,” Baker said.
Daniel Gigliotti can be reached at email@example.com.