By David Conyers
The home ground advantage and an outstanding first half display of rugby was not enough collateral for the USA Rugby South Panthers to clinch back to back Caribbean championships. The visiting Guyana national team played the perfect game plan and used their superior fitness in the second stanza of regular time and likewise in overtime to claw their way back from an 8-24 deficit at ½ time to win the title 30-27 on the stroke of the 100th minute of play.
Widely regarded as the most exciting game ever played at the Life University complex, the game had all the elements of an international final which had the disappointing crowd up on their feet at many stages of the game.
The South Panthers had prepared as well as they could for the title match given a lot of the players had finished club rugby 6-8 weeks earlier. The south were also severely weakened with the loss of outstanding flyhalf Lucas Baistrocchi, who was on All American Collegiate duties, Ty Elkins on select Sevens duties in Kenya, a further two players who were injured in the Cayman tussle and a devastating head clash at training Friday where two of the squads outside backs were sidelined for the game. Some last minute call ups and adjustment had the Panther outfit at full numbers, but what now turned out to be a major disruption to the team’s momentum.
The South coaches had researched the Guyana team and realized they were not going to match them in flare and outside speed, so the game plan had been to play a tight control orientated forward dominated approach. This tactic had worked perfectly for the opening stanza and the home team managed to rack up four well-constructed tries on the back of a quality lineout that resulted in a series of 30 meter driving mauls.
The South could not have started better when in the first minute they dotted down a seven pointer after a long range well- executed driving maul saw lock Wayne Chermerly cross the line and converted by outside center Matt Hughston. Both teams traded penalties for the next 15 minutes before star back Matt Hughston showed his class to score an excellent running try and convert to take the lead to 14-0.
The south then incurred a series of penalties that gave the visitors a taste of attack and were able to log a penalty goal to reduce the margin to 11 points. A massive forward raid on the Guyana line at the 30 minute mark and 10 phases of possession saw man of the match flanker Cathal Doyle use his jinking ability to cross for the five pointer. The try was not converted from an easy range, another telling factor in the end result, to lead 19-3. All year the south had realized the two most critical periods in a match the ten minutes before and after ½ time and scored points in these periods. At the 37th minute of play Matt Hughston scored his second try wide out and was unable to add the extras two. The next few minutes saw Guyana apply pressure after a South penalty and were able to rack up a multiple phase attack and score a dubious try in the corner on the stroke of ½ time to trail 8-24.
The second stanza begun and Scrum ½ Charlie hutching can consider himself desperately unlucky not to have points credited to his name after a 30 meter cross field charge at the line that had him decked from a very dangerous high tackle just meters out. The result a very lucky yellow card considering the danger involved in the tackle and no penalty try awarded. This was a defining turning point in the game that could have and should have been the match decider for the game.
From this point the south were their own worst enemy, conceding many undisciplined penalties and gave the home team momentum and territory. The south had drifted from the game plan and their strengths, and as fitness faded the Guyana team sensed a weakness. Another crucial error came when a replacement south player who had not been at practice and heard the reiterated message of zero tolerance to backchat had a goal line penalty reversed against the team and seconds later a converted try resulted to narrow the lead to 27-15.
At the 72 minute mark and the south bench used with a twelve point margin the south made more critical bad decisions and were caught lazy as Guyana launched a sevens style attack out wide to score and now have them within range at 27-20.
As the south wilted in the 85 degree heat, the fitter team did not and were given territory from back to back penalties; despite some stern south defense they were able to cross the line and convert to tie the scores at 27-27 with just a few minutes of regular time left.
The clock ran out and a last minute rule change directive from Ireland HQ outside the manual stating that the first point scorer would win the match again unsettled the team.
So, into overtime and the south had the better of the first 10 minutes with all the field position, failing to take a kickable penalty and a drop goal attempt that took the paint off the right hand upright. The second period began and south thwarted them-selves with a restart kick that failed to go the required ten. From this point it was raid after raid by Guyana and the south to their credit held them out. On the stroke of the 100th minute of play and the real possibility of a penalty kick off the south conceded a scrum penalty for alleged deliberate wheeling and the goal kicker bisected the uprights to give the nation of Guyana their first N.A.C.R.A Title 30-27.
For the south Flanker Cathal Doyle gave an outstanding display for the entire 100 minutes in the forward pack and Matt Hughston produced an outstanding first half display at center.
The south were guilty of conceding penalties at crucial times, deviating from the game plan and failing to execute the fluent backline play that had got them to the title match.
The result overall is a great boon for Caribbean rugby and match commissioner Scot Harland praised both teams; Guyana for winning the title with so few resources and the South for raising the standard of competition in their three year undefeated run.