The Bulls are out, the Raiders are back at full strength, Connecticut are in the winner’s circle again and the Sharks have been given a second life. That’s the outcome after the first week of the playoffs in the American National Rugby League Atlantic Conference. After a tight tussle at the War at the Shore last weekend, the Aston Bulls and Connecticut Wildcats sought to settle the score in New York. The Wildcats barely held onto a huge lead, winning 38-30. The Cats got off to a flyer, scoring off their first set when Mike Phillips plucked the ball out of the air from a fortunate bounce and landed on the try line. Phillips was at it again soon after when he sliced through the Bulls defense off a kick return, running 70 meters nearly untouched to score under the posts. Sebastian Berdichevksy missed the conversion, leaving Connecticut in control early 8-0.
With all the momentum Connecticut put two more tries on in the first half. Some swift hands down the left flank resulted in a four pointer, while a smart dummy-half run by Cats hooker Matt Walsh minutes later saw the lead extend to 16-0. The Bulls had to score next and they did so on the stroke of halftime. Tomahawk Andrew Kneisly strolled through a gaping hole in the Wildcats defense and the scoreboard read 16-6 at the horn. Connecticut re-gathered at the break and hooker Walsh found holes in the Bulls defense - he scored two quick tries and a Bulls comeback became much less likely. However, with the memories of War at the Shore fresh in their minds, the Bulls started to clean up the handling errors that had plagued them in the first half. After accumulating pressure, the frantic footwork of Alejandro Valentin carved through the Wildcats line to score a runaway try after which the Bulls number one replicated the same play five minutes later. With ten minutes to go, the Cats were in front 32-18 with Aston gaining momentum. Connecticut captain, Curtis Cunz commanded control and capitalized on a crack in the Bulls defense close to the line; he stretched out and crossed the chalk to extend the Wildcats’ lead yet again, 38-18. The Bulls refused to roll over and with the clock ticking down; they scored three tries in the final seven minutes, but fell six points short. Final score: 38-30.
Curtis Cunz was happy with the effort of his boys, but was obviously let down by the lapse in concentration at the end. “The first three quarters, we played dynamic rugby we played probably the best rugby we’ve played the whole year, we had had great continuity,” he told WeAreRugby. “I’m not sure what it was exactly, but it’s something we will have to work on at practice. From that last quarter we’re going to have to tighten up our defense. They started getting a little feisty and I think that got to our heads so we’ve got to be stronger than that, we should know better.”
Down in Philadelphia, the Sharks came up against a full strength Northern Raiders who were firing on all cylinders. The Raiders were victorious 46-10. The game went back and forth for the first quarter. The Sharks had plenty of attacking opportunities early in the game, but the Raiders held strong in defense. This set the tone for the game, as the Raiders never really looked in doubt. Raiders’ coach, Joel Venables said the men in green have peaked at the right time in the season. “We played at full strength for the first time all year, the main thing was to get to the playoffs without any injuries and I’m glad to say everyone was healthy. Matt Vautin came back big with two tries and Dan Fullarton came back huge with three tries,” Venables said. Fred Vero has grown to be a valuable asset in the Raiders lineup throughout the year and he was an intimidating force in defense. Leigh Coe came up with some huge plays on both offense and defense and Rob Ploth, as always, was consistent and methodical in his work rate.
The Sharks, harboring some injuries, were not without their standout performers, Dan Johnson and John Vella grabbed a try each. Injured Bucks County fullback, Ryan Sodano said discipline in offense was the Sharks biggest downfall. “We made some mistakes as far as ball handling and possession goes, we didn’t complete our sets as well as we should have and it just opened up opportunities that they took advantage of,” he said.
The semi finals this week will see the top seed NY Knights play the number four seed and seed 2 play seed 3. Winners of both games will advance to the Grand Final on August 20.