Axemen Clinch Grand Final Berth
By Brian Lowe Photos by Allene Rachal
The 121 Financial Jacksonville Axemen have clinched a spot in the USA Rugby League national championship game with a 44-16 victory over the defending champion Atlanta Rhinos in the South Conference final.
As has been the case in just about every game this year, the Axemen got out in front early and were never headed on the way to Saturday evening’s win at UNF.
Hooker Lachlan Bristow again led by example scoring a hat-trick of tries, something Axemen fans have become accustomed to in 2018, and booting a slew of converts.
He was ably assisted by his teammates, who for the most part controlled the match as the home team outscored the visitors by eight tries to four.
From the Rhinos’ standpoint, and as was the case the last time these teams met in Jacksonville, they spilled a lot of ball that cruelled their opportunities. On top of that, they also gave away needless penalties for infringements that stalled their momentum.
Uncharacteristically, the game was marred by unnecessary niggle by both teams, something that irked head coach Sean Rutgerson.
“I’m really disappointed with the way we played. It was a poor game. It was a poor spectacle for anyone coming to watch rugby league for both teams.
“Atlanta was niggly and we were reactive to it. It’s not part of what we do here in Jacksonville, but obviously I’m glad we still did enough to win it.”
Bristow got proceedings underway just three minutes in when he scored and converted his own try for a 6-0 lead.
Prop Kevin Wathen, never one to be far from the action, scored next and with Bristow’s extras it was suddenly 12-0.
Bristow further extended the lead minutes later when he dummied and ran 30 meters to score. He was good with the convert to give Jacksonville an 18-0 buffer.
A solo effort by second-rower Jed Pearce led to the Axemen’s fourth try when he pushed off several tacklers from 25 meters out to score and the extras made it 24-0.
Needing to be the next to score, Atlanta put together a series of completed sets, aided by Axemen penalties, and finally scored out wide when winger AJ Tacornal got across the line from an overlap.
The attempted conversion missed, leaving the score at 24-4 to Jacksonville at halftime.
The Axemen opened the second half with Bristow bagging his third try by twisting out of a couple of tackles from close in. His extras made it 30-4.
Winger Tyler McClain was on the end of a cross field passing movement and found some space on the fringes to score. Bristow’s conversion was wide, leaving the scoreline at 34-4.
However, the Rhinos were now playing for pride and pegged one back when prop Jordan Heine scored out wide following more Atlanta pressure. The extras were no good to make it a 34-8 ballgame as the match paused for the second half water break.
Jacksonville’s other winger David Washington got his name on the scoresheet with a try after the break to ensure the home team would clinch victory. The conversion attempt was wayward but the Axemen led 40-8 at that point.
A second effort by lock Desta Bailey saw him bull his way over line after fielding a crosskick and although Bristow missed with the extras, Jacksonville had an insurmountable 44-8 cushion.
The Rhinos made the scoreline more respectable with two late tries for the final score of 44-16.
“We came in with the mindset of it’s our game to lose, the pressure’s on them and unfortunately for us they stepped up to the challenge,” said Rhinos captain Nick Newlin.
“They’re a really good team this year and they showed it and unfortunately we kind of took a step backwards. Maybe had a little bit of that championship hangover type thing this year and it showed here and there during the season.”
UNF will be the venue for the USA Rugby League national championship game on Saturday, August 25 when the Axemen will host the Brooklyn Kings, who won the North Conference final 34-18 over the White Plains Wombats.