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Rugged tradition: JBLM rugby team hosts tournament

Northwest Guardian

Published: 02:57PM July 10th, 2014

In 14 years of elite “7s” rugby tournament play on Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Watkins Field, the home team has never managed to win its own cup.

This year was no different with tough competition from international-and-elite level players from Seattle, Bellevue and Tacoma participating July 4.

Despite finishing fourth place in the men’s division, JBLM Rugby coach Nick Punimata said facing tougher competition helps their players develop and improve as they move forward in their pursuit of making the All-Army team later this year.

“It’s one of those things where the experienced players direct the attention of guys who are not as experience,” Punimata said. “We talk about the strategy, we talk about the game itself and the nuances.

The JBLM Stud Dawgs rugby team was one of five men’s teams that competed in pool play, going 1-3 to qualify for the plate match for third place. They lost to the Eastside Axemen 24-17.

Similar to their 19-17 pool play loss to the Tacoma Rugby Club, JBLM players could have been more patient in between scoring a try and have time to set up for the 2-point kick.

But rushing themselves could make it more likely to hook the kick far left of the post and cost the team the close loss.

“You’ve got to consider your time, your space, but it’s just hard for them to grasp it until it happens,” Punimata said. “You may be ahead or getting ready to tie, all you have to do is make the kick.”

JBLM started their day with a 29-17 victory over the very familiar Naval Base Kitsap club, a group that plays better in the faster pace of seven-on-seven rugby as opposed to the more physical 15-man playing field.

In their second match, JBLM played Old Puget Sound Beach Rugby Club and lost 47-7. Known for being coached by Fiji national star Waisale Serevi, OPSB eventually won the men’s division cup by defeating Tacoma 34-7.

Punimata said some of his players would be working with OPSB as part of an agreement to train and develop in preparation for the All-Army Rugby 7s tryouts in October at Fort Benning, Ga.

“After the summer, we won’t have rugby until the Army-Navy game (in the spring),” Punimata said. “We have a lot of moving pieces where we can’t sustain a viable club.”

While the JBLM squad struggled against the competition, the tournament was considered a success with two fields set up with lines and temporary posts on Watkins Field the night before.

Punimata credits having the support of installation commanders over the years for providing the support as an unofficial part of the annual Freedom Fest held down the street at Cowan and Memorial Stadiums.

In addition, there’s a support from high school club coaches who bring teams from as close as Tacoma and as far out as Portland.

The Oregon Roses defended their high school division championship by defeating the Prairie Mustangs out of Yelm, 33-5. They first heard about the JBLM tournament while at another event last year in Tacoma.

Roses coach Sione Aisea said while rugby is a fun sport, rugby is a family regardless where you play and where you’re from.

“If this guy is from California and he knows rugby, then we’re family,” Aisea said.

Several coaches said the JBLM tournament is set up the way any rugby competition should be; nTot only with a great field, amenities and trophies at the end, but because the competition is not too aggressive and cutthroat while remaining spirited.

Punimata said he hopes to see the tournament continue to grow, especially with more high school clubs and younger players throughout the Pacific Northwest being introduced to the sport of rugby.

“I think it’s the start of something good and it’s only going to get better over time,” Punimata said. “Part of the return is seeing some of these kids develop, playing in college and hopefully for the U.S. Eagles.”