2005-03-25 / Sports

Rockaway Fisheads Reach Rugby Finals With Skeleton Crew

By Phil Tufano


As the old saying goes....”You Never Know.” Those words were never more appropriate than they were this past Saturday, when the undermanned Rockaway Fisheads rolled into the Finals of The Lion’s Spring Rugby Tournament at Randall’s Island.

With key players Barry Cowhead, Oakie O’Connor, Omar the Tentmaker, and Player-Coach Bob Johnson on the shelf and unable to attend, the Fisheads were undaunted, crushing all in their path until finally succumbing to South Jersey 15-12 in a breathtakingly close and hard fought final match. The story of the day was perseverance and “playing the hand that was dealt” as the Fisheads claimed second place hardware and a successful start to their spring 2005 campaign.

Rockaway started the day with the bare minimum of 15 players, 5 of whom were rookies playing in their very first live contest. You would never have known it as the locals absolutely demolished Manhattan/New York 24-0 in a match that wasn’t nearly as close as the score. Oscar Prince, Mark the Cougar, Ron Kemly and Kevin Stony Brook helped the rookie backs look like polished pros, while the pack did their usual demolition work up front. Rockaway cruised and the outcome was never in doubt.

A most unfavorable seeding forced the Fisheads to meet South Jersey immediately after the first match were over and no rest was granted to the surprise first round winners. Facing a young and quick squad, the Fisheads resorted to their trademark smashmouth brand of Rugby, controlling possession and slowly turning the screws on the younger opposition. Grouch McCann, Phil Tufano and Hayden New Zealand grinded out long punishing runs, while Tim Kelly, Mike the Russian and Vlad “The Impaler” provided support throughout.

The backs tackled well and Oscar Prince performed masterfully at scrumhalf, quarterbacking the locals

out of trouble time and time again. South Jersey jumped ahead 3-0, but the Fisheads answered back with a try by Mark the Cougar and took a 7-3 lead. That’s how it ended after a scoreless nailbiter of a second stanza, with the Fisheads alternately threatening and defending in a brutal contest of wills. The Fisheads prevailed 7-3 and went on to the semi-finals against Landsdowne.

By now, Kermit Egan had shown up and assumed the controls at scrumhalf, relieving the brilliant Oscar Prince who was moved out to wing. The contest was no contest as the ramped up locals destroyed the tough but outclassed Landsdowne squad 23-0. Against all logic, the skeleton crew from Rockaway marched into the finals, facing a somewhat familiar foe.

The round robin format pitted Rockaway against South Jersey a second time as Rockaway finished first with 3 wins/no losses while South Jersey was best of the rest with 2 wins/one loss. By the time the final had kicked off at 4:20 the older legs of the Fishead vets had begun to stiffen, losing some of their zip after 3 complete games and no substitutions. The once defeated opposition showed no signs of discouragement and jumped on Rockaway early for a 15-0 lead. The sagging Fisheads were tired and on their heels, lucky to make it to half with the match still within reach at 15-0.

Then something happened. Reaching down deep inside, the veteran Fisheads found a spark and began to dominate the second period. Plowing in with a walkover try from a 5 meter scrumdown, Rockaway showed they were far from finished. Narrowing the gap to 15-7, the locals struck again on their ensuing possession as Oscar Prince scampered in from 30 meters out to make it 15-12. Wrafter could not covert a steep angled conversion, but the locals remained within one score of tying or winning the match and clearly had captured the momentum. Rockaway continued to pound the now reeling visitors from South Jersey but just couldn’t finish a last scoring play. The whistle sounded with the score South Jersey 15 Rockaway 12. A hard fought and well played battle saw the short staffed Fisheads club nearly do the impossible against the longest of odds.

Starting the day with 5 rookies, the bare minimum of 15 players and back to back matches, Rockaway summoned up a tremendous series of performances to be proud of. It’s a promising start to the season and a job well done by all. As the saying goes.... ....YOU NEVER KNOW.

The Fisheads will host a college tournament this Saturday at Ft. Tilden. Come down and see the future of Rugby Football as teams from Virginia, New York and the Rockaway Junior Fisheads do battle. The Fisheads open the ERU play-offs April 9th at Hartford Connecticut against the Hartford Wanderers. The Fisheads will be making their second consecutive ERU play-off appearance and appreciate any support from local fans willing to make the trip. Stop by the Rugby Clubhouse after the matches on Saturday for a beer and get all the details for that trip and the rest of the Fishead Spring season.   

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