Greenwich High rugby set for battle with rival Xavier

Greenwich High School senior captain Mateo Gowland awaits possession of the ball during Monday afternoon’s practice. GHS and Xavier will meet up in a battle of undefeated teams May 3 at 6. — John Ferris Robben photo

Greenwich High School senior captain Mateo Gowland tosses the ball to his leaping teammate during Monday afternoon’s practice. GHS and Xavier will meet up in a battle of undefeated teams May 3 at 6. — John Ferris Robben photo

The waiting is over. It’s finally time to see who will flex their muscles and gain the upper hand when it comes to high school rugby in the Northeast and tri-state area, as powerhouses Greenwich and Xavier high schools prepare to square off.

And to say that Greenwich High School is ready would be an understatement.

On Saturday at 6 p.m., the undefeated Cardinals rugby team and undefeated Knights will take the pitch at Cardinal Stadium in what will be both team’s toughest competition this season.

“We struggle with playing good competition, just like Xavier does, so to find a great game is certainly going to help both programs,” Greenwich High School head coach Joe Kelly said. “Win or lose, we are going to be helped by playing each other. Everybody that comes to see a Xavier and Greenwich game are shocked at the level or rugby that’s played. Both teams are serious about the sport. Some times Greenwich has better athletes than Xavier and other times Xavier has the better athletes. But both programs are well-coached. With that, it adds a level of ball that is appreciated to those that come. Having the game on a Saturday night and hosting it here in Greenwich is huge.”

The last time the game was held in Greenwich was two years ago. In Kelly’s second year as head coach of the Cards, Greenwich, in front of a raucous crowd at Cardinal Stadium, finished off Xavier 31-22.

“We played a close one last season and hopefully we do that again this year,” Kelly said. “I predict another close match. Whoever is better on the day should win this game. Hopefully with the support of the Greenwich community, we will find ourselves with the same atmosphere that was here the last time this game was in Greenwich. We matched the attendance of a football game the last time it was at Cardinal Stadium and it was unprecedented.”

Saturday’s game between Xavier and Greenwich will feature two top 15 teams nationally.

As of the Rugbymag.com April 22 rankings, Xavier was ranked fourth overall and had its quality victory over Australia’s Trinity School, winning 43-14. Xavier also tied Gonzaga College Prep, ranked third in the country, 10-10.
Not to be outdone are the Cardinals, which are currently 7-0 overall heading into Saturday’s game against Xavier and are ranked 12th nationally, according to Rugbymag.com.

Their signature win this season so far came against rival Fairfield Prep, however Greenwich also upended the Texas state champs St. Thomas 74-22 and Pennsylvania champs Unionville 39-0.

“We played really well the first part of the season,” Kelly said. “We played all the really good team that we could travel to and we got lucky as a team from Texas came to Greenwich. We did well against those teams and against teams like Fairfield Prep and Fordham Prep. Right now, the most important thing we are targeting is playing Xavier.”

The Cardinals are set to battle rivals Xavier Saturday night at 6 in Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

The Cardinals are set to battle rivals Xavier Saturday night at 6 in Cardinal Stadium. — John Ferris Robben photo

For Greenwich to be successful against Xavier, Kelly said that the team must not be intimidated.
“They are tough kids,” Kelly said. “We have to make sure that we don’t get intimidated by the toughness of the Xavier kids. They might be a little tougher than we are, but I think we can match their intensity. We certainly have solid athletes on our team.”

Getting the members of the Cardinals fired up for the Saturday’s game hasn’t been too much of a challenge. The practices have been filled with the usual intensity, but Kelly said there’s an extra buzz in the air.

“Our plan is to work the boys hard and get them physically ready for this game,” Kelly said. “We want them to feel as invincible as a 17- or 18-year-old kid can feel. We are going get them to the point where they are so physically fit that they are going to be unstoppable on gameday. They know they are a match for this team and aren’t intimidated by them.”

In the game leading up to the Xavier match-up, Greenwich had few issues getting by Ridgefield High School on Senior Night. It’s a tradition with the GHS rugby team that only seniors play on Seniors’ Night.

After a slow start, due to numerous non-regulars in the match, Greenwich gained the upper hand with five tries in running up a 31-0 halftime lead. Two touch-downs by center Russell Tanaka, and one each by prop Tommy Williams, center Dylan Carroll and flyhalf Federico Mato, enabled Kelly to open up the bench for the second half.

Things actually went smoother from there, as the overmatched and fatigued Tigers succumbed to the relentless Greenwich rucking.

Seven more tries, by Carroll, and one each by scrumhalf and captain Mateo Gowland (who also notched six conversions on the day), Mato, flanker Javier Rovira, fullback Eric Thakor, wing-prop Brechan Allison secured the final deficit against the Tigers.

While both GHS and Xavier are currently gearing up for their clash, this is far from a new rivalry.

Both the Knights and Cardinals are well-established teams in the region, with Xavier forming a team in 1976 and Greenwich a decade later.

After countless battles between the two schools, Greenwich earned its first tie with Xavier back in 1995, the same year Big Red won the New England championship. Although Greenwich came close to beating Xavier back in 1997, falling in a heartbreaking three-point loss, the Cards came back in 1999 and upended the Knights for the first time.

“It became a big rivalry over the years and many of the developing programs from around the area would struggle when they played either Xavier or Greenwich,” Kelly said. “The wave of growth in the sport only happened 10 to 12 years ago and has continued all the way through, but for years there was nobody to play. So the rivalry kept on building, but it got to the point where Xavier was almost too good. They had the edge on us for numerous years, but now we are on par with Xavier in my opinion.”

Although GHS has been close several times since the 1999 victory, it took until 2012 for Big Red to beat Xavier again, doing it in grand fashion in front of a home crowd.

Last year it was Xavier’s turn, as they hosted Greenwich and came away with the 33-19 victory.

“It’s been exciting for both teams for years now,” Kelly said. “It’s a healthy rivalry and both teams really want to win. When it comes to two of the best teams from around the Northeast, the teams mentioned are Greenwich and Xavier.”

It’s such a rivalry that Kelly sees people that played rugby for both schools, whether they graduated last year or two decades ago, still want to know what happened between Greenwich and Xavier during the season.

“That’s what they remember,” Kelly said. “People from Greenwich talk about that and people from Xavier talk about that. When I had the first opportunity two years ago to beat Greenwich, I was at a social function in Brooklyn and the topic of rugby came up. In that topic, someone came up to be and heard that I said that Greenwich beat Xavier that year. The assumption amongst the mainly Xavier crowd was that we played their ‘B’ team. I told them that it was their ‘A’ team and we beat them fair and square, but the Xavier alum don’t grow comfortable with the fact that Greenwich can beat them.”

Greenwich’s game on Saturday will be a solid gauge for how the team will fare in two weeks at Nationals. On May 15, Big Red will face the toughest competition in the country when they travel once again to Elkhart, Ind. for the National Tournament.

“We will know how we will do at Nationals based on how we perform against Xavier,” Kelly said. “If we perform well and are competitive, then we know we are good for Nationals because no team is significantly better than Xavier.”

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