The New York Knights and Connecticut Wildcats are the two teams left standing, and so the 2011 American National Rugby League Atlantic Conference season has come full circle.
The Wildcats and Knights played each other in the first two rounds of the season, winning one each, and now they prepare to face off in Cup Final XIV at Pier 40, Manhattan on Friday night, August 19. Since they last faced off in Round two, New York and Connecticut have travelled quite different roads two reach the Grand Final. This was exemplified in the semifinals doubleheader played Friday night in New York City.
The Knights played their clinical brand of rugby league beating the Bucks County Sharks 72-4, while the Wildcats battered and bruised their way against a formidable Raiders outfit to win 34-20.
The Knights racked up their biggest margin yet this year and after scoring within the first five minutes of the early game, they never looked in doubt. Regan Hyde and Fitz-James Adams bagged a hat trick each, halves Nigel Millgate and Andrew Moody scored doubles and John Dykeman, Ian Elliot, Darragh O’Flaherty and Justin Ripley managed to cross the chalk and etch their name on the scoreboard with a try each. Australian import, Millgate slotted 8 from 14 in the goal kicking department.
The highlight of the match came when Knights hooker, CJ Cortalano shot out of dummy-half to find Hyde charging through a hole. With defenders hanging off every limb, Hyde flicked a blind pass to Millgate, who only had the fullback to beat. Millgate elegantly put boot to ball, chipping overhead he chased, re-gathered and collapsed over the line along with the pursuing Sharks defenders.
Knights’ coach, Guillaume Cieutat is looking forward to ironing out a few creases in his side’s game. He says they are in pursuit of perfect execution of their game plan come next Friday night.
“I think we were a little bit rusty because we had two weeks interruption without playing and when you’re preparing for a playoff it’s never good not to play. I think it’s important to be on a roll … but we woke up and I thought it was a very good second quarter, high quality and clinical,” he said.
The focus for the Knights is on the coming week at training and Cieutat says they will be working on ball control. The Knights fumbled a lot of ball throughout the semifinal and the Wildcats will be less forgiving for their mistakes.
“I think they [Connecticut] have a couple of key players that need to be contained and they are full of enthusiasm,” Cieutat said. “They got us the first game of the year, they came from behind and we were unable to answer them in the last 20 minutes, so we will be very vigilant in preparing for this game.”
The Wildcats and Raiders had the late game, but they certainly didn’t look tired as they fought a very physical struggle throughout the first half. The Raiders were boiling with enthusiasm and were led on offense by Matt Vautin, Dan Fullarton and Leslie Alovili.
The game sat in the balance at 12-4 to the Cats for the majority of the first half until Matt Walsh finally cracked open the Raiders’ defense to pull away to 18-4. A try each after the halftime break meant the Wildcats were doing just enough to keep the game away from the Raiders, but the green machine never gave up and started to gain some momentum.
The result could have been different if not for Curtis Cunz’s cover defense. He stopped Matt Vautin, who found the clear and would have scored for sure. Moments later, Walsh sliced through and put the game all but out of reach at 28-8, advantage Wildcats.
Cunz scored a try not long after, at which point the Raiders could have easily chosen to give up. They kept peppering the Connecticut defense and scored two tries in the last few minutes to make the final scoreboard read, 34-20. Wildcats’ hooker Matt Walsh the hero of the day with four tries. The Cats will have four regular starters back in the lineup for the Cup Final which should guarantee a tight game. Connecticut are much more accustomed to tight games this year and captain Curtis Cunz hopes to replicate much of how they ground down the Raiders.
“I thought on the attacking side of the ball we played some smart, safe footy. We haven’t been at our full strength since the beginning of the season in week two due to people taking vacations and injury,” he said. Even with key players such as Matt Walsh and Drew Duggan in form, it will take the best performance the Wildcats have to be victorious next Friday. “Defensively we really need to tighten up our efforts. We have to wrap up the ball and avoid the offloads. Just as importantly, we need to come up off the line versus the Knights as they have some tall beefy players and we won’t want them to gain any speed. If we do that we will give ourselves a chance,” Cunz said.
So with the Raiders and Sharks gone, all eyes will be on the Wildcats and Knights at Pier 40 this coming Friday night for the 14th decider of the AMNRL championship.
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