MLR Cup Championship Preview
Chuck Lueckemeyer
May 19, 2000

MLR's Cup Championship Series begins May 19-20 with matches in Austin, Texas and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Championship Final will be played May 27th at the home of the highest seeded semi-final winner. Here's a look at the contenders and what each club must do, and not do, to lift the MLR Cup.

Austin vs. Palmer College:
Location - Austin, Texas:
Kick-Off - Saturday 20th, 1.00PM.

Austin Blacks Overview

Austin makes no bones about the secret to its success. "We want to speed the game up," says captain Rick Medina, "the quicker the better." Kiwi coach Brian Thornally, who worked miracles for the Blacks two years ago, has returned to Texas fit and eager after a personal victory over cancer and the Austin team is a reflection of its skipper, hale and hearty around the pitch and fervent in its desire to engage the enemy at ramming speed. The Blacks rely on speed to the breakdown, quick-phase attack and support in numbers to make up for a smallish pack that looks to break even in set play. Blindside flanker, Pete Nichols leads the charge in the forwards and quickly won ball is deftly distributed by Medina, the diminutive scrumhalf who has guided the Blacks for years. Anthony Holder is a table-turner at fullback with a thunderous boot that clears pressure from the defensive zone and pace and moves that make him a clear and present danger in counterattack. Flyhalf Mike O'Keefe makes opponents pay for their transgressions with laser-shot penalty goals.

MLR Record: 4 Wins, 0 Losses, 19 Points. Austin stormed through the MLR season, especially in the spring, when it posted lopsided victories over New Orleans and Dallas. After losing to Super League's Dallas Harlequins on the last play of the game in the Texas Rugby Union Championship, the Blacks stood tall when it mattered most, beating the Harlequins in the Western Championship Tournament, 31-24. The Blacks bested Washington 27-3, in USARFU "Sweet Sixteen" tournament in Sacramento on May 13 before falling to the Hayward Griffins 41-15 in the round of eight.

They Drink From The Cup If: They've learned their lessons. Austin, always formidable with a lead, has shown a tendency in the past to lose composure when in arrears. "We don't get behind very often," says Medina," but in the past we'd panic when we did." Austin came from 16-3 down to beat the Harlequins in overtime at the Westerns. Medina says the way his club won was "an added feather in our cap. For the first time in a long time, we realized that if we stayed with game plan and showed some patience, we could come back and win." The Blacks are talented. They must remember that the match lasts eighty minutes.

They Cry In Their Beer If: They don't set the speed limit. The Blacks look to score from the opening kickoff and pick up the pace from there. Their game is quickness, speed and numbers and they want to keep the ball in play. An opponent who can take the flow of the game from the expressway to the school zone can give them fits. These guys are cheetahs, not elephants, and they don't thrive in a plodding, pummeling, set-piece environment.

Palmer College Overview

Time is not on the side of Palmer College. "Most of these guys are here for a three-year term of college," laments Kiwi player-coach Darcy Brown, "and just when they get really good, they graduate." While tomorrow is always a mystery for Palmer, these days things are looking up as the club has acquired a core of talented mentors to teach its avaricious tutees. Dean Walsh, who mastered at flyhalf for the Chicago Griffins, is a flashy runner with a deadly toe and center Boydy Wikeepa, formerly of Seattle RFC, regularly schools opponents with breaks through midfield. Palmer's A+ backrow features Brown at #8, Eagle-trialed Shane Smith on the blind and Natal product Luke Lotriet at open-side flanker. These guys blast off the back and boost offensives often initiated by thrusts through the centers. Adam Greenley is a fortress at loose-head prop.

MLR Record: 3 Wins, 1 Loss, 13 points. Palmer bested Scioto Valley twice this season and beat the Chicago Griffins in the fall. They were beaten soundly in the rematch, 28-7, allowing three second-half tries. Palmer lost a 36-31 heartbreaker to Cincinnati in the Midwest finals when the Wolfhounds crossed at full-time.

They Drink From The Cup If: The stars shine bright. Walsh can control a game. Wikeepa is always a threat. Lotriet can blanket the pitch and has an uncanny knack for the try-line. Brown is a force off the back. Their best players must play their best.

They Cry In Their Beer If: They don't storm the beaches. Palmer has a core of experienced leaders who have played when the stakes were high. The Generals must whip the troops into a frenzy. Fitness and youthful enthusiasm can make up for lack of knowledge and technique.

Boulder vs. Griffins (Bay Area)
Location - Austin, Texas:
Kick-Off - Saturday 20th, 3.00PM.

Boulder Overview

Showing unyielding belief in the axiom "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts" Boulder plays a fifteen-man game that any club would envy. With a forward pack that absolutely eats up loose ball and backs who can knife through defences like butter, this is a club that can afford to be democratic in attack. Captain Murray Wallace leads his mobile forward pack from the flanker position and Boulder can ruck with anyone in the country. Beating its opponent to every breakdown is the signature of the Boulder style and quickly-rucked ball allows a myriad of options for skillful flyhalf Herman Kok and his talented back-line. Lock Matt Morrill and #8 Robbie Williams are forces in the Boulder pack and fullback Steve Bethke is a galloping try-scorer who adds conversions and penalty goals in abundance. He is the career-scoring leader in MLR play.

MLR Record: 4 Wins, 0 Losses, 18 points. Boulder hammered the Kansas Jayhawks, 72-12, in Lawrence on April 1st but just nipped underdog O.U. 16-11, in a fight-tarnished match at home a week later. Boulder's failure to eke a bonus point out of the match cost it a hosting role in the Cup play-offs.

They Drink From The Cup If: They give a flying ruck. Make no mistake about it, everything this club achieves comes from it's dominance in the loose. When Boulder controls the ruck, they're almost impossible to beat.

They Cry in Their Beer If: They see a mirror image. Teams that hang with Boulder in the loose can cause them worries. Multiple-phase possession can be used against this club, sometimes slow to reform on defense.

Griffins (Bay Area) Overview

Until some one topples the three-in-a-row National Champion Gentlemen of Aspen, they must deservedly be considered the top dogs in U.S. rugby. But there are some big dogs in Northern California nipping at their heels, the Hayward Griffins. The Griffins possess a wealth of talent, power and speed most clubs can only dream of. Hayward plays an open game in the purest sense and if you can't run all day and get there fast you watch the match from the touchline. The Griffins soften up defenses with a phase or two around the base and then attack from the outside in, moving the ball straight to the wings and back to the pack through the fullback and centers. Along the way it passes through the hands of Fijian-capped, flyhalf Opeti Turuva and centers Ponipati Bainivalu and Molisi Poteki, three horsemen of the apocalypse who will attack from anywhere and have the zip to finish. Scrumhalf Mose Timoteo holds the fuse to the Hayward fireworks and can explode on his own from the base or hand back inside to Eagle-sub powerhouse, #8 Seti Fifita. If there's a flaw in the Hayward diamond, it's lack of depth in the forwards, where a mix of older veterans and yearlings sometimes lacks cohesion. Captain Ongolea Taufa stirs this volatile brew from the hooker position.

MLR Record: 3 Wins, 0 Losses, 14 Points. In MLR's toughest Tri-Series group, the Griffins went undefeated against Southern California rivals Huntington Beach and Back Bay. In April they finished off the rest of the state, defeating Super League's Golden Gate and San Mateo in the Pacific Coast Regionals. Hayward beat the Unicorns and Austin in the USARFU's "Sweet Sixteen" to advance to Final Four, June 3rd in Manchester, New Hampshire.

They Drink From The Cup If: They wear out the boot leather. The Griffins' game plan is run, run and run some more. Hayward President Manu Finau says, "I can sum up our philosophy in three words, 'Keep it moving'." Enough said.

They Cry In Their Beer If: They don't share the wealth. Every player on the Griffins wants to run and score and Finau says this can create problems, "Sometimes our forwards try to do too much. Eight or nine phases from our pack is not what we're about."

Cincinnati Wolfhounds vs. Montauk:
Location - Cincinnati, Ohio:
Kick-Off - Saturday 20th, 3.00PM.

Cincinnati Overview

The Wolfhounds have raised their level dramatically since the arrival of Kiwi coach Dennis Berg, who previously commanded Belmont Shore, and Welsh coach Steve Brierley, who the club credits with vastly improving its technical skills. Cincinnati attacks from the base of the scrum and picks up from the ruck until it has its opponent on the heel. Then the ball moves wide. Much of the softening up is provided from former Eagle lock Chuck Tunnacliffe, flankers Mark Heidrich and John Hogan and calendar-flipping, #8 Sam Tovo. When the Kiwi sledgehammer knocks you down in May, you wake up in June. Flyhalf Barry Muir, another New Zealander, pilots the Wolfhound attack, and can dance around and through first-line defenses to create space for a backline with pace on the outside, in particular, racehorse winger Casey Schneiber. Muir also possesses a strong and accurate boot and for a team to control the Wolfhounds, it must make stopping Muir priority number one.

MLR Record: 4 Wins, 0 Losses, 18 Points. Cincinnati rolled through Group Four with relative ease as both Atlanta and Nashville struggled this season. The competition level skyrockets in the Cup Tournament but the Wolfhounds should be ready. Cincinnati placed second to MLR's Chicago Griffins in the Midwest Championship and gave a strong performance in a losing effort against OMBAC in USARFU's "Sweet Sixteen" tournament in Dallas on May 13th.

They Drink From The Cup If: They read the directions. Cincinnati's attack can become predictable at times and an alert opponent can adjust accordingly. The Wolfhounds have the tools to score points and must keep the defense honest by changing the direction and point of attack more often. When they use the whole field they're almost impossible to stop.

They Cry In Their Beer If: They play 52-pick up. The Wolfhound pack picks up a lot of ball that might better be rucked over to set a clean platform for attack. Muir has a backline that can finish and a #8 and flankers who can pound the ball inside. Let the visionary flyhalf determine the point of attack.

Montauk Overview

While Montauk tinkers with a forward pack not long off the assembly line, its backline is a finely tuned, try-scoring machine. Turbo-charged centers Francois Reyneke and former Eagle 7's Robbie Balnis drive the Montauk backs with the speed and agility of F-1 racers and if an opponent manages to yellow flag the mid-fielders they can pass to dragsters Jay Short and Chris Carney on the wings. Short notched six tries in four MLR matches and Carney, another Eagle 7's vet, is a brick wall with wings. The Montauk forwards have spent a limited time together and have yet to reach their potential as a unit but opposites shouldn't take them lightly. Lock (and captain) Frank Bistrian and South African, eight-man Garth Wakeford lead a horde of ball-hungry grinders who eat up more than their share of the loose. When the enthusiastic Wakeford, who also serves as coach, whips this group into a feeding frenzy, they leave few scraps on the table for unwanted guests. And good ball out this backline doesn't go ill-used.

MLR Record: 2 Wins, 1 Loss, 1 Tie, 14 Points. Montauk held off a late charge from Mystic River, 27-24, on April 8th but lost leads in earlier matches against White Plains, resulting in a tie and a loss. Was fitness an issue?

They Drink From The Cup If: They don't look back. Few teams in the country have a backline with this much go and the Montauk pack has shown the ability to control huge chunks of possession. This club has the firepower to jump to big leads and must avoid the tendency to look in the rear-view mirror.

They Cry In their Beer If: They're forced to play 10-man rugby. Reyneke is a creator. Balnis and Carney are devastating attackers and also make opponents pay the price for mishandles. Short is a terrific finisher. The ball must come out.

New York Athletic vs. St Louis Bombers:
Location - Cincinnati, Ohio:
Kick-Off - Saturday 20th, 1.00PM.

New York Athletic Overview

Winged Foot's fight song might be the Cole Porter classic, "Don't Fence Me In". "We'll do everything it takes to create space," says lock Mark Ludvigsen. With a backline that features team captain and Eagle flyhalf Kurt Shuman, attacking center Nick Humphries and greyhound winger Paul Enright it's no wonder Winged Foot is always jostling for elbow room. Now NYAC must feel like Bill Gates winning the lottery, as this spring it added 8-capped, Eagle 7's star John McGeachy to its already talented backline. The wee Scotsman was towering in Winged Foot's one-sided win over NOVA in April, scoring 32 points on four tries and six conversions. McGeachy is a dagger at scrumhalf but NYAC is so deep at the position that he'll probably line up at fullback or wing. Eagle prop Ray Lehner and ITT-tested hooker Paul Silverman are rock-solid in the front row and lock Adam Russell and flanker Mark Griffin add granite further back. Look for the New Yorkers to bash it through the center and move it quickly to creators Humphries and McGeachy. Even from his spot in the trenches Ludvigsen observes, "Games that become track meets are games we love."

MLR Record: 3 Wins, 1 Loss, 16 Points. Winged Foot was doubled up by NOVA,
44-22 in the fall but exacted vengeance in the April 9th rematch, 67-10 and followed with a 49-5 hammering of the Pittsburgh Harlequins a week later. The NYAC backline crossed for 15 tries in the two matches.

They Drink From The Cup If: They body punch. NYAC sets up its attack by jabs to the midsection of the pitch and doesn't hesitate to attack through its centers from first-phase ball. They love to split the field and reform quickly. Shuman is a master of putting his troops into space and McGeachy & Co. don't need much.

They Cry In Their Beer If: The blade is dull. It's better to burn out than fade away and these guys haven't played a meaningful match in over a month. Rust never sleeps.

St Louis Bombers Overview

The Bombers won the Inaugural MLR Cup last year but their coach, former Eagle captain Ron Laszewski, knows repeating will be a challenge. "The quality of the league has improved and defending our title will not be easy. However, our squad is much deeper and fitter than it was twelve months ago." The Bombers have no glaring weaknesses and feature a balanced attack with solid play at the sets, good mobility around the paddock and a slice-and-dice backline with lots of finish on the wing. Eagle prop John McBride and Bay of Plenty NZ lock Hayden Mexted anchor the St. Louis pack and a hungry back row provides quick ruck ball for its lethal backline. Eagle Chris Schlereth is a constant threat at center and the Bomber midfielders are happy to assist their fleet-footed wingers, Eagle Dan Fernandez and Hamilton Hinton, who score with rapidity.

MLR Record: 3 Wins, 1 Loss. 17 points. The Bombers only MLR loss was a 40-36
thriller on the road against Kansas City in October. St. Louis surged in the spring, hammering GOATS 72-34 and Kansas City 57-5, and beating Super League's Chicago Lions despite playing a man short for 70 minutes. They lost to the Dallas Harlequins in the Western Championship Tournament.

They Drink From The Cup If: They win their own sets and support in numbers.
The strength of the Bombers is quickly-used possession and lots of it. When they move the ball wide their opponent is in trouble.

They Cry In Their Beer If: Their wings get clipped. Fernandez and Hinton must get their touches. When you have speed like this on the outside you don't waste it.

MLR CUP Semi-Final One:
Location - Austin, Texas:
Kick-Off - Sunday 21st, 1.00PM.

WINNER - Austin vs. Palmer College
WINNER - Boulder vs. Griffins

MLR CUP Semi-Final Two:
Location - Cincinnati, Ohio:
Kick-Off - Sunday 21st, 1.00PM.

WINNER - Cincinnati Wolfhounds vs. Montauk
WINNER - St Louis Bombers vs. NYAC

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