2018 Nationals Preview: Mens Division 1

Lo, for it is October.  The tenth page on the calendar brings with it many things – among them chilly weather, crisp air, foliage, and unnecessarily early Christmas decorations.  Seriously, I haven’t even bought my Halloween candy yet, what the heck?

Of more importance than all of that, October means that the National Championships of Australian Rules Football are upon us.  A year of blood, sweat, tears, and the occasional beverage of tears have brought us to this point.  To quote the immortal Ron Barrassi and probably a few others, “this is what you play for.”

Seven divisions,  45 teams, over 1,000 athletes, and two full days of what Rod Grljusich likes to call “100% pure USAFL Australian Football” because that’s exactly what it is.  So it is that for the 22nd time we lovers and purveyors of the greatest game in world gather for bragging rights, some shiny hardware that goes with it, and the experience of making some long lasting friendships along the way.

For the first time in 13 years, we’ll be back in the great state of Wisconsin.  Not in Milwaukee as in 2005, but rather a little bit of the way down the shore of Lake Michigan to the proud and scenic gem that is the city of Racine.  Never in my 11 years of taking part in this perennial extravaganza have I seen a city so eager to have Nationals in their backyard.  Hopefully we give them a good show.

This is the first of four articles previewing the teams and the pools that will take part this weekend.


MEN'S DIVISION 1

For the first time since 2002, the Men’s Division 1 National Championship will not be contested among eight teams.  Rather, six teams will take to the ground for the first grade flag, but every game will still mean the difference between playing for the title in front of the rest of the league (and the world via the internet) and having an early beer on Sunday.

Each pool has three teams, and the top two advance to Sunday morning’s semifinals.  The winners will square off on Sunday afternoon.  Will the Roos repeat?  Will New York, Denver, or Austin retaste past glories?  Or will LA or the Canadian invaders from Le Belle Province shine through for their first D1 title?

POOL A: Golden Gate Roos, New York Magpies, Denver Bulldogs

When the siren sounded on the Division 1 Grand Final last season, the Golden Gate Roos had not only claimed their first Division 1 flag, but they had silenced a few of the critics who had fancied teams like Austin and Los Angeles to do the celebrating in San Diego.  Despite the fact that they have not lost a game in two years (19 in a row), there are still those that consider them underdogs as they go for a repeat.

While the Roos’ Aussie core of Jake Ryan, Jack Lucas, Justin Mann and Ben Dowdell are having their best seasons with the side, the key cogs of the repeat machine are composed of American parts.  With the retirement of key forward Bryan Dragus, Zac Taylor joins Mann as the key forward targets for the heat seeking missiles provided by Dan Livy, Dave Franco and Kyle Johnson.  Tim Lindfelt adds additional height to supplement Dowdell and defenders will need to play him tight to keep him from doing even more damage.

The Roos may be the form team of this pool, but the New York Magpies and Denver Bulldogs will provide tough opposition for the Gaters, and may find themselves scrapping for that all-important second semi-final spot in Pool A.

New York posted a 9-2 record this year, their only two losses coming away from home against Division 3 Philadelphia, one of those losses coming at full strength.  Shane Lowry and company have had not had the easiest of times playing away from Yonkers, and there are probably still questions lingering as to how they’ll do here in Racine.  That said, this is still the New York Magpies, and they will want a crack at the Roos again after they knocked them off in 2016 to deny them a shot at the D1 title.

What makes the New York attack so dangerous is their ability to spread the ball around effortlessly.  It’s like watching someone spread cream cheese on a bagel.  In doing so, the backs will look for targets such as Mike “Magic” Murphy, Mike Frietta, and the angular assassin, Dan Lehane.  Marcus Jankie has starred in the last couple of Nationals for the ‘Pies, and if he and Revo product Nick Bowman get going, New York will look to fight for their third D1 title and their first since 2014.

Denver, with eight men’s D1 national championships cups sitting – metaphorically or otherwise – in the cupboard back home, is always a threat.  That they went 5-7 this year and were accounted for by Austin at the Central regional championships, and that they haven’t been in a final since 2011 is no matter.  You need to bring your A-game or you’ll be sent home on the A-train.

Tyler Ames and Brian Rippeto return home after playing in Australia to light the scoring fire provided by the veteran group.  Andy Vanica and Tim Wilson-Humphries haven’t lost a step in that backline for the Doggies, as they look to figuratively bite back at the opposing offenses.  Brandon Kaufman, the onetime Buffalo Bill, has emerged as a dependable and consistent target, and even when teams clamp down on him, he has the athleticism to work magic with the football.

Pool B: Austin Crows, Los Angeles Dragons, Quebec Saints

2017 was supposed to be the continuation of the Austin Crows dynasty, with them having been widely tipped to sweep through field on their way to a three-peat, and their fourth title in five years.  But just like the Phil Collins song, something happened on the way to heaven.  That something was an emphatic win by Los Angeles in pool play, ending the dream.  There has been a quiet resolve, which has morphed into a snarl, among the Crows players, and each team that has come up against them in their ten games this season has felt first-hand how much they want to get back on top of the USAFL mountain.

All of the pieces are there.  Nolan Cox is one of the most formidable rucks in the league, and his squadron of mozzies buzzing around the midfield include the eclectically talented Ben Carpenter-Nwanyanwu, the swift Michael “Sharky” Linehan, and Central Regional Best & Fairest Daniel Brown.  Veterans Noor Jenghir and Christian Merritt round out the American talent that will try to feed the ball into the danger zone, home of the ageless Grant Campbell and the ever impactful Ben May.

Many were looking forward to an Austin-Golden Gate Grand Final last year, and many are looking forward to one this year.  But four other teams will have something to say about it.  Loudly.  Last year’s D1 Runners up are one of them.

Winning nine of twelve in USAFL play in 2018, the Los Angeles Dragons picked up solid victories at home, including decisive wins against Denver and Dallas, and went 2-1 at Regionals, ultimately falling to Golden Gate.  In spite of that minor setback,  Los Angeles looked good in every game they played throughout the year.  They’re solid up and down the track – from defender Andrei Jansen, to big Donald Lee in the ruck, swift running Julian De Vizio and David Dollar in the midfield, and piercing forwards Paul Loakim and Pat Nicholls keeping the numbers turning on the ol’ scoreboard.

Two key additions to the team at the end of the season should boost their chances of a return to the knockout round for another crack at the Roos.   Sam Murphy, who played in West Perth’s system in the WAFL and for the Revos in Ireland and perfected his aerial work along the way returns a more versatile player.  Longtime Philadelphia Hawk Ryan McGettigan, who brings another level of athleticism to a side teeming with it already.

Two years after going 1-2 in their first Division 1 apparence, the Quebec Saints return having won their second D2 Grand Final in three years.  Les Bleus made the trek across the border to play USAFL competition a couple of times this year, their most telling effort a 21 point loss on ANZAC Day weekend in New York, a game that was competitive throughout.

With two of the top three teams in the USAFL glaring downwards at them from within their group, making an Alcatrazian escape from pool play with be a bit of a feat.  But, Les Saints have the guns and the goods.  Patrick Efting won last year’s Roos Medal, and Phil Manassa is usually the Saints’ prime mover.  National teamers Morgan Whyte and Ronan Shaughnessy are followers that are difficult to guard against, and Romanian rocket Bogdan Rotaru is another midfielder who rises to the occasion.

PREVIOUS WINNERS:
1997 - Cincinnati def Nashville
1998 - Boston 15.7.97 def Golden Gate 1.1.7
1999 - Boston 4.2.26 def Golden Gate 3.2.20 (Extra Time)
2000 - Denver 3.4.22 def San Diego 3.2.20
2001 - San Diego 10.4.64 def Boston 2.5.17
2002 - Denver 8.1.49 def San Diego 0.2.2
2003 - Denver 8.5.53 def Boston 1.3.9
2004 - Denver 2.6.18 def New York 1.1.7
2005 - Denver 4.8.32 def Milwaukee 1.1.7
2006 - San Diego 4.9.33 def Denver 2.0.12
2007 - Denver 3.3.21 def San Diego 2.3.15
2008 - Vancouver 4.4.28 def Baltimore-Washington 2.0.12
2009 - Denver 2.5.17 def Seattle 2.2.14
2010 - New York 4.4.28 def Denver 1.1.7
2011 - Denver 3.2.20 def Calgary 0.5.5
2012 - Title Vacated
2013 - Austin 4.2.26 def Calgary 4.2.25
2014 - New York 2.4.16 def Orange County 2.1.13
2015 - Austin 4.4.28 def Orange County 2.4.16
2016 - Austin 6.3.39 def Golden Gate 2.1.13
2017 - Golden Gate 6.4.40 def Los Angeles 2.2.14

 

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