Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Controversial call costs men’s rugby in loss to Middlebury

By Daniel Malone

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Neither Massachusetts men’s rugby coach Anthony Neverson nor his players had ever seen anything like the controversial re-kick awarded to Middlebury College in the waning minutes of Saturday’s home-opening 33-31 loss.

With the scored tied at 31, the Panthers (1-0) appeared to have missed on a golden opportunity to take a late lead after the 2-point conversion attempt following the visiting team’s fifth try of the match sailed wide left. But a rarely invoked rule penalizing the Minutemen (0-1) for excessive crowd noise before the kick gave Middlebury a second chance.  The Panther kicker calmly drilled the do-over for the go-ahead score.

“I’ve never seen that before,” Neverson said.

Neverson wasn’t sure why Saturday’s referee called the sideline noise violation.

“I think it was a clarification (issue) or a misunderstanding of the law,” he said. “(The referee) whistled us for our fans interrupting the kicker. Once he takes a step forward in an effort to convert the kick, it’s free game, anyone can yell and say anything that they want. She interpreted it as distracting him.”

Players, too, were left confused about the referee’s ruling on the conversion kick.

“I’ve never seen that before in my life,” forwards captain Kyle Merrigan said. “I’ve seen it before when the players are yelling, but it’s just absurd for me to think about them penalizing the team for having fans out there.”

Despite the controversial call, players recognized they had missed opportunities earlier in the match. First-half try conversions from Jose Zapata and Zach Almond helped UMass keep pace early on, but an all-around sluggish start saw Middlebury jump out to a 26-12 lead early in the second half, which made erasing the deficit difficult.

The Minutemen eventually settled into the groove that had evaded them for much of the first half. Tim Harvey, Merrigan and David Curran plunged over the try line for three consecutive scores to take their first lead of the day at 31-26.

“It would have been easy for us to concede the match after getting down 26-12,” Neverson said. “But the team showed a lot of resiliency in fighting back in the second half after getting their legs under them. I give them a lot of credit for that.”

Middlebury, however, took the UMass counterpunch and responded by marching down the field to reclaim the lead on the disputed conversion kick.

The Panthers claimed victory after a last-second desperation penalty kick from long range for the Minutemen fell harmlessly to the turf.

“We beat ourselves,” backs captain Alec Hudson said. “We ran the game. It’s just the mistakes we made they were able to capitalize on.”

Both team captains acknowledged that the refereeing was not to blame for the team’s loss.

“It’s a tough sport to ref,” Merrigan said. “But we’re not going to blame it on that.”

“It’s on us, it’s not on (the referee),” Hudson said.

Even with the loss, Neverson couldn’t help but be pleased with how his team performed in their first game action of the season.

“I’m proud of the boys,” Neverson said. “They did a tremendous job on the field today. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Neverson suggested that Saturday’s experience will go a long way in preparing the team for next week’s showdown at home with Southern Connecticut.

“I’m confident in the boys,” Neverson said. “I know what we can do. There’s a little sandpaper work, a little polishing off that we need to do, but again, I’m confident going into (next week’s) game.”

For Merrigan and the others, the Minutemen’s sights remain set on the ultimate prize.

“One loss isn’t going to cost us nationals,” he said. “We still have a very good team. I’m very confident we’re going to go all the way this year.”

Daniel Malone can be reached for comment at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @Daniel_Malone.

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