Pelham Youth Rugby is playing its first season with a U16 team and chose a stern test to open the season, the JV squad from No. 4 ranked Xavier.
Adding to the difficulties, Pelham was without superstars Kees Huisman, a captain, and Josh Quinn, and Captain North Westall was arriving late due to his star turn in the Sock ‘n Buskin production this weekend. The team was led onto the new Glover Field Sunday by first-time captains Matt Biskup and Luke Persanis.
The first half of the match was dominated by Pelham, who had a strong wind at their back but decided not to take advantage of it by kicking. Instead, the U16s played to their strength and kept the ball in hand. Xavier kicked off and Pelham held the ball for a few phases of play before turning it over. Xavier got the chance to put some phases together, but was stifled by Pelham’s defense. Several runs down the sideline were thwarted by wings and fullback CIan Burns, Danny Maydwell and Ryan Killeen.
Pelham swarmed the ball and harassed the Xavier players into making mistakes. The strong defense caused a turnover by Xavier that resulted in a long breakaway run by Joe Nelson, who touched down for Pelham’s first try. Pelham missed the kick and settled for a 5-0 lead.
Xavier came storming back, dominating line outs, while Pelham did a fantastic job scrummaging. It was one of the first games with live scrummaging for the Pelham players and the front row of Christian Battaglia, Morgan Collins, Kevin Ndou and super-sub Jean Vigroux did an excellent job holding up the scrum all day. Alex Oman and Nelson aided with strong shoves.
Persanis and Whit Johnson were excellent pressuring the opposing scrumhalf and flyhalf, enough so that Xavier gave up passing from the scrums and had their No. 8 man pick the ball up every scrum. That move was shut down by Pelham flankers Matt Biskup and Matt Rabinowitz. Some more strong defense by center partners David Monaco and Harry Fanning resulted in another turnover leading to a penalty and a strong crashing run by Johnson. Pelham went into halftime leading 10-0 from the two tries, knowing they’d face a stiff wind and a revved up Xavier team in the second half.
The second half was a nail biter, with lots of good defense and lots of penalties as well. The penalty count was killing Pelham and keeping Xavier in the game. Pelham pushed the ball inside the Xavier 10-yard line several times only to make crucial mistakes and allow Xavier to clear the ball. Xavier scored roughly half way into the second half, converting the kick and making the score a very close 10-7 in Pelham’s favor.
But there was no quit in Pelham. The home side kept Xavier out of the try zone on several storming breaks. They defended well, stopping Xavier runs from close in. After about 10 minutes of steadfastly defending their own line, Pelham got a break when Xavier committed a penalty on the Pelham 15-yard line. Persanis quick tapped and took off running and made it to the Xavier 15-yard line before being run out of bounds. This led to a lineout (a throw-in, in rugby speak), which Xavier won. Fantastic Pelham defense forced Xavier to commit another penalty. Off this, North Westall took off and scored on a run right through the heart of the Xavier defense. Harry Fanning made his first conversion of the game, staking Pelham to a 17-7 lead, which was the final.
At that point, Pelham’s new U16 players took the field for a second mini-game. Having only had a handful of practices and no games, Pelham’s new boys did a fantastic job playing against one of the best teams in the country. They allowed a couple of trys, but played really well.
“There is going to be a lot of competition for spots on the starting team,” said Coach Matt Persanis. “It should be fun.”