High-school Rugby: Devils Open Season with Win at Birmingham

The ball goes down the line from a Dexter scrum, with the powerful Jaylin Steedman waiting
The ball goes down the line from a Dexter scrum, with the powerful Aaron Steedman waiting; Photo Credit  — Sarah Even

Birmingham Area Youth RFC 5 Dexter RFC 17, Thursday, 14 April, 2016

The collaboration for 2016 between Dexter Rugby Football Club and Genesee County Elite RFC began on a winning note in Birmingham on Thursday, when the Devils defeated their hosts with tries from flanker Nathaniel Orlowski (Sr, DHS), second-row man Robert Guenther (So, DHS), and  winger and fly-half Sean Wakefield (Sr, DHS), plus a conversion from scrum-half Neil Makin (Jr, DHS).

Victory came after only three days of practice for the enlarged squad: nineteen DHS men, plus the players from Genesee Elite – prop Jake Camp (Jr, Byron High School), flanker Shane Kolinski (Sr, Fenton High School), back Gavin Mackie (Fr, Grand Blanc High School), back Noah Mahnke (Jr, Linden High School), fullback Brandon Muma (Sr, FHS), centre Aaron Steedman (Jr, LHS), no 8 Jaylin Steedman (Jr, LHS), and prop Skylar Stites (Jr, LHS).  It was no surprise, therefore, that the Devils’ first-half performance was a little rough around the edges, with some handling errors, missed tackles, and positional mistakes.  The roughest edge of all was displayed when, after six minutes, Birmingham ran the ball in for a try from thirty metres out, aided by several Devils missing tackles and with the last line of defence missing.  At that point, the significant number of Devils supporters who had braved the rush-hour traffic in the northern suburbs would have been forgiven for anxiously recalling Dexter’s two losses in the Toledo Friendlies a month ago, when promise and youth were let down by repeated failures in execution.  But a month is a long time in high-school sport, and a squad of twenty-seven is a different proposition altogether from the bare playing XV Dexter took to Toledo.  Just two minutes after Birmingham’s score, the Devils converted their constant early pressure and frequent presence within Birmingham’s twenty-two-metre line, when flanker Orlowski, many spectators’ choice for man-of-the-match, broke a series of tackles and showed great agility to dive in for a try, subsequently converted by Makin (whose other two conversion attempts and a penalty kick at goal, none from easy angles but all kickable, did not, unfortunately, add to Dexter’s score).  At half-time the match was clearly in the balance at 7-5, but the Devils’ supporters were encouraged by their team’s clear advantages in possession and territory, even if disappointed by the failure to cash in those advantages.

The Devils pack – with Camp, captain Tyler Even (Sr, DHS), and Kyle Rooke (So, DHS) starting in the front row, Clayton Drenner and Josh Friedman (both Srs, DHS) in the second row, and Orlowski, Kolinski, and Jaylin Steedman at loose forward, looked much more powerful than Dexter’s front eight of recent years, and, with fresh legs and more strength in Stites, Guenther, and Alex West (Sr, DHS) coming off the bench, well-supported.  In hooker Even, flanker Orlowski, and no 8 Jaylin Steedman, the Devils will hope to have some of the best and most-experienced players at their respective positions in the Michigan Youth Rugby Association league, while the less experienced men in the pack have learned quickly and to good effect, ensuring that, on Thursday, Dexter set-pieces were generally effective and Dexter ball well controlled both at the scrum and the line-out (where Jaylin Steedman played scrum-half, opening up the possibility of power runs round the corner).  Nonetheless, Birmingham’s pack, as ever well-drilled by coach Jim Clawson, repeatedly outrucked Dexter’s forwards, who could have been quicker to the loose ball and in support, so there is definitely still work to be done.

In the backs, Makin at scrum-half and first Seamus McCurren (Jr, DHS) and then Wakefield at fly-half, moved the ball efficiently, with Makin’s kicking for touch increasingly confident as the match wore on.  Aaron Steedman at inside centre brought the key combination of power, speed, and agility to the midfield, supported first by Wakefield and then by Ethan Stairs (Sr, DHS) at outside centre.  Mahnke and Truman Stovell (Jr, DHS) started on the wings, with Muma at fullback, where McCurren played in the second half.  While the handling was not always perfect (at least one try went begging a metre out, after a knock-on) and defense was sometimes a little careless, the Devils’ back line looked quick and agile and the ball moved down the line efficiently.  If the Dexter backs sharpen their tackling and positional play and tidy up their handling, they should be a strong group this season.

Indeed, the second half saw many of the improvements that must have been demanded at half-time  by Dexter’s head coaches, Paul Burke, Doug Karaska, and Dustin Steedman (of Genesee RFC), plus assistant coach Steve Turovsky (also new head coach at EMU).  On defense, the Devils dominated the Birmingham three-quarters who, challenged by the visitor’s loose forwards and agile backs, were unable to move – or, at times, even hold – the ball, while Birmingham’s pack, although they continued to recycle well, did not often advance across the gain line.  The Devils, who spent a lot of the half inside the Birmingham twenty-two, used their own ball well, and were rewarded with a fine power try from Guenther and then, after excellent movement along the line, with an excellent touch-down in the corner from WakefieldStairs, who was powerful in possession and excellent in the offload, was unlucky not to score the fourth try needed for a winning bonus point.  Powerful runs by Even and the Steedman twins, all of whom had excellent games, might also have produced Dexter scores, but the Devils coaches expressed their satisfaction in the result, and now look ahead to Friday’s fixture at newly promoted Downriver (6 pm kick-off, Civic Center Park, Woodhaven).

The match was followed first by the traditional “third half”, in which every player who had not started the match had the opportunity to show off his skills (and which the Devils won comfortably), and then by the equally traditional shared meal, when the cooking skills of the Birmingham families provided a lasagne dinner consumed with great enthusiasm by both squads.

Dexter’s squad list, with further details of the Dexter Rugby program, may be accessed here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2ypd3vcs3909w8p/DRFC%20Team%20Sheet%202016.pdf?dl=0.   For further information on Dexter Rugby, go to the Facebook page for “Dexter Rugby” or http://www.rugbymichigan.org/page/show/2367446-dexter.  Follow DRFC on Twitter @DexterRugby.

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