Axemen are back-to-back South Champions
The 121 Financial Credit Jacksonville Axemen have won the USA Rugby League (USARL) South Conference championship for the second straight year with a tough 28-6 victory over a very competitive Tampa Mayhem in the conference final.
The Axemen emerged triumphant by five tries to one Saturday night at the UNF Rugby Fields, a ground that has been extremely kind to them in the past two seasons. As was the case in the regular season finale two weeks ago against these same Mayhem, they again gave Jacksonville a stern test in the final home game of 2019.
“They sure did, and we knew they would,” said Axemen head coach Sean Rutgerson. “They came to play.”
An early penalty goal by Tampa’s Jay Kissick put the visitors up 2-0, a lead they held until very late in the first half. Lock forward Khalial Harris finally got on the board for Jacksonville with a try inside the dying stages. The Axemen’s goal kicker Nathan Richter added the conversion for a 6-2 buffer and that’s how things stood at halftime.
From Jacksonville’s standpoint, a lot of dropped balls blemished their opening 35 minutes.
“As we were trying to apply pressure, we kept dropping the ball and then on the back of that we gave away two or three penalties in a row that obviously helped them out a fair bit, but we defended really
well,” added coach Rutgerson.
In the second half, the Axemen improved their ball handling and were rewarded early with a try to back rower Jye Montgomery. Richter’s conversion was successful for a 12-2 scoreline. Not long after that, five-eighth Charlie Jones extended the margin with a try, although the conversion attempt missed, leaving the homeside up by 16-2.
At that stage of the game the Mayhem were still in it giving Jacksonville all they could handle. Following a lengthy period of back and forth pressure by both teams, Axemen center Josh Jackson slipped through Tampa’s defense for a try that gave his team some breathing room. Richter’s conversion missed for a 20-2 lead going into the final quarter. Minutes later, Richter slotted a penalty goal to push the lead out to 22-2.
However, the Mayhem weren’t done, and just as they had shown last month, they mounted some enterprising attacking play of their own and forced their way through Jacksonville’s stout defensive lines to score a try to narrow the gap. Ben Payne dotted down, but the attempted extras missed to leave the Axemen in front 22-6.
Closing in on fulltime, halfback Jacob Hawkins put the icing on the cake with a try, converted by Richter, to make it 28-6 at the final whistle. Coach Rutgerson says it was the kind of hit-out his side needed at this point of the season.
“It was a good game; it was great for the crowd to watch. It was tight, neither side was giving in, it was good contact, and it was really even.”
Despite their stellar effort in the first forty, the Mayhem couldn’t keep pace with the Axemen, particularly in the last quarter of the game.
“The first half of this game was probably the best half I’ve seen us play this year,” said Tampa CEO Billy Neilson. “We made a few mistakes in the second half and Jacksonville is too good of a team to let you off when you do that. And our fitness in the second half wasn’t where we needed it to be and we couldn’t match them.”
The Axemen now have two weeks to prepare for the USARL national championship game, which will be a replay of last year’s Grand Final against the North Conference champion Brooklyn Kings.
The match is set for a 4pm (ET) kickoff on Saturday, August 24, in Brooklyn, NY.