GLENDALE, Colo. — All seven Soldiers on the pitch touched the ball during All-Army’s winning drive to the 2013 Armed Forces Rugby Sevens Championship.
2nd Lt. Will Holder of Fort Sill, Okla., scored a last-second, diving try that lifted All-Army to a 19-14, walk-off victory over All-Air Force in the gold-medal match Aug. 17, at Infinity Park, Colo.
“It was a great game, wasn’t it?” said All-Army coach Mark Drown of the Utah Army National Guard. “You can’t ask for a better finish.”
Holder touched the ball down for the winning try as the scoreboard clock struck the regulation game time of 14 minutes. The seven, All-Army players on the pitch had a hand in the play as the ball zigzagged across midfield and another 50 meters for the game-winner as time expired.
Sgt. Mattie Tago of Kaiserslautern, Germany, galloped from one side of the pitch toward the other, then cut back against the grain, up the middle, and into Air Force territory.
Capt. Andrew Locke of Fort Benning, Ga., controlled the loose ball stripped from Tago and got it to Capt. Daniel Geib of Fort Drum, N.Y. His brother, 1st Lt. David Geib of Fort Campbell, Ky., retrieved the ball from the ruck when Daniel was tackled and got it back to Locke, who tossed it to Maj. Nate Conkey of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., and he churned several more meters up the middle.
“I was able to get up field a little bit, saw the guy’s hips turned, and attacked him,” Conkey said.
“I knew I was going to get leveled, but I offloaded at the last second. I’ve never felt so good to get hit so hard.”
Conkey got the ball to Spc. Nuuese Punimata, Utah Army National guard, who broke a tackle before tossing to Holder.
The ensuing missed conversion kick was moot, and the Soldiers began celebrating the second Sevens Rugby Championship in U.S. armed forces history.
Before 2012, the military tourney featured 15-man rugby.
“I just wanted to win the tournament,” said Holder, 22, who graduated in May from the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. “Seeing Nate’s face, it was just awesome knowing that I was a part of something that the Army hopefully will cherish.”
Nate’s face was that of Conkey, 34, who coached Holder for three rugby seasons at West Point and was an on-field force for All-Army throughout the Serevi Rugbytown Sevens International Tournament at Infinity Park, a venue designed exclusively for rugby.
The Armed Forces Championship was played in conjunction with the world-class rugby event in this mile-high city surrounded by Denver.
“It certainly was quite the high beating Air Force for the gold medal,” Conkey said.
All-Marine Corps won the inaugural Armed Forces Sevens Rugby crown in 2012 and dealt All-Army its lone setback of the 2013 tournament, a 26-12 decision on Saturday.
“Kudos to the Marines,” Conkey said. “They were the defending champions. They are a good club. There are no slouches here.”
2nd Lt. Benjamin Snelson of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., scored two tries and 1st Lt. Sean Rohrs of Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla., added a try and two conversions to lead All-Marine Corps (3-2) to a 19-10 victory over All-Navy (2-3) in the consolation match for third place. All-Coast Guard finished 0-4.
Gold medalist All-Army (4-1) defeated silver medalist All-Air Force (3-2) in the teams’ first and final games. Conkey, Tago and both Geib brothers scored one try apiece, and Holder added three conversions to lead the Soldiers to a 26-7 victory in their first match.
“We had a 19-0 lead at halftime and were in complete control of that game,” Conkey said. “We seem to thrive off that first bit of goodness we achieve, whether it is the first big hit or the first try.”
All-Army also prevailed 38-0 over All-Coast Guard and 34-0 over All-Navy.
Conkey, Holder and Punimata were selected for the Armed Forces All-Tournament Team, along with Navy PO3 Nicholas Flynn of Naval Base, Norfolk, Va.; Navy PO2 Michael Fletcher of Fort Belvoir, Va.; Marine Corps 1st Lt. Sean Rohrs of Naval Air Station, Pensacola, Fla.; and Air Force ROTC Capt. Wesley Meredith of Georgia Tech University in Atlanta.
“It was a great, great job by the Army,” Drown said. “All in all, we had great results. We have four players now being looked at for the U.S. National Team: Lt. Will Holder, Capt. Andy Locke, Sgt. Mattie Tago and Spc. Nu’u Punimata.
“The national team coach has shown interest in them and would like for them to come into the national program. That’s a great opportunity for these boys to now be at the international stage, representing not only the Army but the United States.”
If Soldiers are selected to play for Team USA, they possibly could be assigned to the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program.
“There’s a process they have to go through, and if a couple of these players can get into WCAP, that’s just great for them, USA Rugby, and for the military,” Drown said. “It is very conceivable that we could see Soldiers playing rugby at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.”
Several more Soldiers contributed to All-Army’s Armed Forces triumph: Spc. Mark Boswell of Fort Hood, Texas; Pfc. Keoni Hamala, Utah Army National Guard; 1st Lt. Daniel Moulton of Fort Drum, N.Y.; and Pfc. Paul Nieves and Sgt. Gerald Saafi, both of Fort Benning, Ga.
“This All-Army team that we put together is amazing,” Holder said. “Everyone on our team had their role. I think what amazed me most is how quickly we were able to come together as a team. We played true team rugby, and that’s why we did so well.”
Conkey seconded that sentiment.
“We’ve played some very good rugby,” Conkey said. “When we settle down, get into the systems that we’ve been coached — our patterns of play — we play good rugby. What’s scary is we haven’t played our best rugby. I’ve got goose bumps right now just thinking about it.”
The All-Army men’s rugby team features two Fort Bragg servicemembers.
Fort Bragg has its own rugby club that meets 6 to 8 p.m., Tuesdays and Thursdays, at Ritz-Epps Physical Fitness Center.