Just wanted to give a quick shout-out to the amazing women of my alma mater, Vassar College.  Guided by the inspirational coaching team of Tony Brown and Mark Griffiths, this team has reached new heights this year.

An early 53-0 drubbing at the hands of bitter rivals Marist raised some eyebrows, and Vassar experienced another setback three weeks later, losing to Albany 20-5.  But since then these women have shown tremendous character to turn their season around and put together an incredible sequence of wins. It started with not one, but two wins over perennial contender Rutgers, and continued as VC avenged the Marist defeat, dominating the Red Foxes 22-5. That was just the beginning. The Tri-State Conference Championship game saw Vassar scrape past Stony Brook, 22-17, which meant they advanced to the ACRA (American Collegiate Rugby Association) Championship.

Vassar’s ACRA campaign began successfully with a 51-12 dismantling of Colgate, and continued with victories over Hartford and SUNY Geneseo on consecutive days. This earned them a berth in the ACRA Final Four, and this morning they went to battle with Notre Dame. History will record a 34-19 victory for Notre Dame, although the scoreline flattered them, as Vassar shipped two late unconverted tries. And that is the cruel reality of sport. But the Vassar women should take great pride in their performance. After falling behind 24-5, they fought back to 24-19, once again exhibiting the resilience they have shown all year. In the end it was not quite enough. But once the wounds of this game heal, it will be time to look ahead to the Spring and continue to build on the fantastic results of the past two months. Congratulations to the whole squad and the coaches.

Below, watch Vassar scrumhalf Margaret Kwateng demonstrate what happens if you are foolish enough to run at her. A lot of professional players could learn something from that leg drive! Then she goes down and scores a try at the other end, naturally.

Samu Manoa is a name Americans should know. He is the best American rugby player, and is among the best players of any nationality in one of the world’s top domestic leagues, the English Premiership. He plays mainly at lock (or second row), and is also capable of playing blindside flanker or number 8. He is a mountain of a man at 6’6″ and 271 pounds, and is well known for his ferocious tackling, but is also extremely agile and skillful. American media coverage of players like Manoa is going to be crucial for the growth of the game in the United States. We need increased grassroots investment and TV coverage, but also the development of a true rugby culture. Soccer is the blueprint: a kid growing up today in the Bay Area needs to be able to dream of being the next Samu Manoa, the same way a kid growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas can now dream of being the next Clint Dempsey.

Of Tongan heritage, (his grandfather and namesake captained Tonga in the 1960s), Manoa was born in Concord, CA in 1985. He played amateur club rugby for San Francisco Golden Gate and the quality of his play there earned him an opportunity at one of the top English clubs, Northampton. It has been a meteoric rise for Manoa considering he played his first game of professional rugby in September 2011. Northampton gave him a three-year contract extension just six months later, and he was named in ESPN’s Dream Team for the 2011/12 season. Manoa’s second season for the club was even more successful, earning the respect of teammates and fans alike as he was named Players’ Player of the Year as well as Supporters’ Player of the Year. He has continued his excellent form this season, recently being named Player of the Month for October.

Manoa will be a vitally important player for both Northampton and the USA Eagles for years to come. In the first video below, you will see many of his trademark hits – textbook technique, great timing, and thudding power. But also look out for his skill in the air – both at restarts and lineouts – as well as some deft passes in open play. The second video is a brutal hit he made while playing for the Eagles that has proved to be very popular on the great Rugbydump.com

The highlight of the weekend was, as anticipated, Wales v Australia. What an incredible advertisement for the great sport of rugby union. Both sides were totally committed, as Australia attacked with panache and Wales defended heroically. The breakdown battle was intense, with Scott Fardy and Michael Hooper getting through a mountain of work to give the edge to Australia in that facet of the game. Amazingly, there were no scrums until the 46th minute, which contributed to a free-flowing game played at searing pace. But in the end, it was déjà vu for Wales as they once again lost to Australia by a small margin, 30-26.

The main headline was Australian flyhalf Quade Cooper’s sublime performance – he marked the occasion of his 50th cap for the Wallabies with a breathtaking display of his attacking skills. When he gets quick ball and accelerates onto it, he looks like he can do absolutely anything.  He has the best long passing game in the world which compliments an array of bedeviling short balls and offloads, and also continues to develop a very intelligent tactical kicking game.  After Saturday’s match, Welsh center Scott Williams compared defending against Cooper to “chasing shadows.”

It is amazing to think that Cooper was in the international wilderness not long ago, having fallen out with Australia’s then-coach Robbie Deans. Cooper didn’t feature in the Lions series this past summer, and it looked like, after a promising start to his Wallabies career, he might never reach 50 caps. Huge credit is due to the man for having worked hard both on his game and his maturity. He had developed a reputation as a party boy, but is now Australian vice-captain at just 25. And credit is also due to coach Ewen McKenzie for showing faith in a player who had performed so well for him at Super Rugby level for the Queensland Reds. Man-management is so important in rugby, as with all team sports, and clearly Cooper and McKenzie have a lot of trust in and respect for each other.

The Aussies will be hugely encouraged by this performance – Bob Dwyer (who coached the Wallabies to the 1991 World Cup) wrote on the always excellent Green and Gold Rugby that for the first 60 minutes of the game, it was “the best I’ve seen Australia play for 10 years.” Meanwhile, Welsh players said all the right things after the match – that their focus would immediately turn to the Six Nations – but privately they will be very disappointed. It remains to be seen how strongly they will bounce back from this defeat, but just based on the quality of the Welsh team, I would make them favorites to win a third straight Six Nations. It’s going to be a very exciting tournament though – England, Ireland, and France (in that order) have shown that they are legitimate contenders for the trophy as well.

Domestic Rugby News

It was business as usual in the English Premiership this weekend, as the top five clubs (Saracens, Northampton, Bath, Harlequins, and Leicester) all won their matches. In the French Top 14, the notable results were seventh-placed Grenoble beating second-placed Toulouse 25-18, and Stade Francais making a major statement, dominating powerhouse Toulon 23-0. In the Pro 12, which features teams from Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and Italy, the top four (Munster, Leinster, Glasgow, and Ulster) all won, although Munster and Ulster were less than convincing in defeating Dragons and Zebre, respectively.

Saturday November 30, 12 PM Eastern – Millennium Stadium, Cardiff

The 2013 Autumn Internationals conclude with a match that should be an absolute cracker. Australia has had the edge over Wales in recent years. Since 2007, the teams have played 12 times, with Australia winning 11 – the sole Welsh win came in November 2008 in Cardiff. The margins have been razor-thin though – in the last three matches between these two, Australia has won by two points twice, and by one point once. Wales will be desperate to reverse this trend. The match has added significance as these two teams have been drawn in the same group for the 2015 World Cup. So each team is anxious to gain the psychological upper hand as rugby’s showpiece event draws nearer.

A compelling secondary storyline is what effect, if any, the manner of the British and Irish Lions’ victory over Australia this past summer will have on this game. It was a remarkable 41-16 victory for the Lions in the third and deciding match, and the defeat was a massive psychological blow for the Australians. The 2013 Lions team was dominated by Welshmen, and seven who started the third Test for the Lions will start for Wales on Saturday: Leigh Halfpenny, George North, Mike Phillips, Richard Hibbard, Alun Wyn Jones, Dan Lydiate, and Toby Faletau. For Australia, the number is eight: Israel Folau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Christian Leali’ifano, Joe Tomane, Will Genia, Stephen Moore, James Horwill, and Ben Mowen. These players certainly know each other very well, and I expect three individual matchups to be crucial in determining the outcome of Saturday’s match.

Hooker: Hibbard v Moore will be a captivating battle – they are two of the best hookers in the world. They will be looking to target each other at scrum time and in the loose. Hibbard has been in the press this week talking confidently about reproducing the physicality the Lions exhibited during the third Test, and no doubt Moore will want to take his opposite number down a peg.

Lock: The Jones v Horwill matchup is another that will set the tone for the two packs. These two were involved in controversy during the first Lions Test when Horwill stamped on Jones’ face as Jones was trapped at the bottom of a ruck. Horwill was eventually cleared of the offense after a farcical judicial process, and the two captained against each other in the third Test. Horwill’s form since then has been so poor that he was stripped of the Australian captaincy by coach Ewen McKenzie, and nearly dropped from the team altogether.  When Horwill and Jones are at their best, they are seriously tough customers, and hopefully they will have a great battle on Saturday.

Scrumhalf: Phillips v Genia at number 9 will be fascinating. Genia has been in mostly bad form this season, and Phillips has been inconsistent on the field, in addition to off-field issues – last month he was embarrassingly fired by his club, Bayonne, for apparently showing up to a video session drunk. As with many scrumhalves, these two struggle with clearing the ball quickly from the base of the ruck. Too frequently both Genia and Phillips pick the ball up, have a look around, take a few steps sideways, and then finally pass. This is a major problem because it takes away time and space, allowing the opposition defensive line to rush up and apply pressure. When a team is functioning well, the scrumhalf should know where the next pass is going as he is getting to the ruck, and by the time he gets there, he should be passing immediately, off the ground. These two will be under major scrutiny on Saturday.

I expect another close game, but I give Wales the edge. They showed against South Africa three weeks ago that they are a very good side. Australia has shown glimpses of quality over the past month, but they are at the very end of a long, brutal season. Despite McKenzie billing this match as a “Grand Final,” I think it will be one hurdle too far for the tired Australians. Below: highlights from the last time Wales beat Australia. Wales by 5

#AllBlackFriday celebrations conclude with a tribute to New Zealand’s all-time leading try scorer, Doug Howlett. He made his debut for the All Blacks against Tonga in 2000, and over the next seven years scored 49 tries in 62 Test matches. Howlett is also the all-time leading try scorer in Super Rugby, having crossed the whitewash 59 times in that prestigious competition. After the 2007 World Cup Howlett moved to Munster, where he continued to be prolific, scoring 35 tries in six very successful years with the Irish province. Howlett’s time at Munster included a Heineken Cup triumph in 2008, which earned him the rare distinction of having won a major domestic trophy in both hemispheres (he won Super Rugby, then called Super 12, with the Auckland Blues in 2003).

When Howlett retired at the end of the 2012-13 season, rugby lost a special talent. On the wing, Howlett was a pure finisher. In the first video below, one thing you will see again and again is Howlett in the right place at the right time, accelerating onto the ball, and touching down in the corner. Howlett elevated the fundamentals to an art form, and many current wingers would do well to study the timing and accuracy of his support play. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was blessed with sub-11 second 100 meter speed! Howlett was also more than capable of putting in the big hits. The second video below shows him taking down a much bigger man, Saracens and South Africa hooker Schalk Brits.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

It’s Thanksgiving Day here in the States, as well as #throwbackthursday, so it seems like a good time to pay tribute to a legendary All Black of yesteryear, Jonah Lomu. Lomu became the youngest All Black in history when he made his Test debut for New Zealand against France in 1994 at age 19, and became a global superstar at the 1995 World Cup. His unique combination of size (6’5″ and 273 pounds, according to Scrum) and sub-11 second 100 meter speed made him nearly unstoppable and captivated rugby audiences everywhere. Despite towering over most forwards, Lomu played on the wing because of his speed, agility, and finishing ability. He scored 37 tries in 63 Tests for the All Blacks, and is the all-time leading World Cup try scorer – 15 in 11 games over the course of the 1995 and 1999 tournaments.

Sadly, a rare and serious kidney disorder hampered Lomu’s rugby career almost right from the beginning. Rugby fans can only wonder what might have been. Lomu had a kidney transplant in 2004, and has required dialysis for the past two years, but said in a recent interview with the Irish Independent that his health is “really, really good.” Jonah: thanks for all the wonderful memories you provided on the rugby field, and best wishes for continued good health.

Check out the videos below for some of Lomu’s greatest moments and to see the great man reflect on his career.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

Ben Smith is already a star in New Zealand, but is only now getting the global recognition he richly deserves. Along with his teammate Kieran Read, Smith is nominated for IRB Player of the Year. He was first capped by the All Blacks against Italy in 2009, but struggled to get into the team over the next few years – such is the quality of rugby talent in New Zealand. Smith was given another opportunity for the All Blacks in 2012, playing in 10 Test matches, and he has played in all 14 Tests this year, scoring 11 tries. He is versatile, having played at fullback, wing, and outside center for both club and country. It looks like Smith’s future for the All Blacks will be at outside center, given that incumbent number 13 Conrad Smith (no relation) is currently taking a break from the game and is unlikely to play on past the 2015 World Cup. Take a look at the videos below to get a sense of Ben Smith’s natural rugby ability. He’s got raw pace, great footwork, and silky passing skills. We are sure to see a lot more from him in the years to come.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

One cannot discuss the All Blacks’ success in recent years without mentioning this man, Richie McCaw. Since making his debut against Ireland in Dublin in November 2001, he has played in 124 Test matches – winning 110, drawing 1, and losing just 13. He has captained the All Blacks on an incredible 87 occasions, winning 77 of those games. He has been named IRB Player of the Year three times (2006, 2009, and 2010) and been shortlisted another five times (2002, 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2012). Most importantly, he led New Zealand to the 2011 World Cup on home soil, heroically playing through a stress fracture in his foot. He is, quite simply, the player of his generation, and one of the all-time greats.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

All Blacks Number 8 Kieran Read is on the shortlist for IRB Player of the Year, and to me, it would be a shock if he didn’t win the award. As a key link between the forwards and the backs, Number 8 is a position that requires a high level of all-around rugby ability. Read has shown this year that he has it all. In attack, he is a strong ball-carrier, a skillful passer (especially adept at miracle offloads, some of which are featured in the videos below), and runs great support lines, especially out wide. In defense, he puts in the big hits and is very strong at the breakdown, frequently slowing down opposition ball or turning it over. At the set piece, he is an excellent lineout jumper and controls the ball well at the back of the scrum. And if we consider restarts to be a third type of set piece, he is very dependable under the high ball as well. He is one of the leaders of the All Blacks, and has played a pivotal role in their incredible success this year. One tribute video is not enough for this man.

Happy #AllBlackFriday

Many Americans who are unfamiliar with rugby in general are nonetheless aware of the fact that the All Blacks perform the Haka, a Maori dance, before every match. In recent years they have sometimes performed a specific type of Haka called the Kapa o Pango. It is a wonderful tradition, and it is fascinating to see how each individual team responds to the gauntlet being thrown down in such an intense manner. Blindside Liam Messam has recently been put in charge of leading the Haka, and he leads it brilliantly, with passion and fire. Before New Zealand’s recent win over England, Messam apparently nearly fainted because he was screaming so loudly trying to be heard over the England fans singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”

Happy #AllBlackFriday