Record Crowd Sees Headliners and Team Triumph in Austin
The 2023 PR7s season has kicked off with a bang. A record crowd was on hand Saturday at Q2 Stadium in Austin for the first stop of the circuit. Despite the sweltering heat in Central Texas, rugby fans, new and old, were treated to a festival on and off the field as Black Joe Lewis provided the headline musical act. The Austin kickoff was the first to feature the new format, with just eight knockout matches keeping the stakes high from the first whistle.
The women went first to kick off the season, and the Pittsburgh Steeltoes and Southern Headliners did not disappoint. After bringing home the Kathy Flores Cup and the PR7s United Championship last year, the women’s Headliners started 2023 where they left off. They hit the ground running thanks to a try from Headliners returning speedster Laura Hurff three minutes in. However, a historic moment came less than a minute later when Salome Lewis put the finish on a fantastic offload from Meg Mambe to score the first try in Steeltoes history. Naya Tapper sealed the first win for the Headliners with two exceptional breaks that were enough to put them over the top and into the final.
In the second semi-final, a notable development transpired as the Locals and Team women squared off. Both franchises, on hiatus since the Inaugural Championship in Memphis, were now fully balanced to feature a women’s side for the first time. The Locals, however, were keen to upset Team’s hometown party, as a try from Nene Weathers right from the opening kickoff put the Locals in the driver’s seat. A pair of tries from New Zealand up-and-coming star Manaia Nuku, alongside some excellent interplay with fellow countrywoman Stacey Waaka, put the Locals into the finals.
The men’s Steeltoes and Locals met next in the first semi-final. An early score from the Locals’ Orrin Bizer was quickly added to by Fijian super-stepper Alosio Naduva. However, an impressive break down the line from David Hightower brought a converted try back for the Steeltoes. Later, with the Steeltoes threatening, a powerful run from storied USA Eagle Ben Pinkelman tied the game up just before the half. In the second half, Naduva returned to his scoring ways, and the Locals never looked back.
The second semi-final between the Headliners and the Team pitted last year’s runners-up against the return of the Team for the time since 2021. A scampering try by Kiti Vai on the wing opened the scoring for the Headliners after some dominating play. The home crowd would not be disappointed, though, as three Team tries from Line Latu, Jerome Nale, and Benson Salem Adoyo would be enough to overcome a brace from Vai as the Team outlasted the Headliners 19-10.
In the third-place games – the Steeltoes men and women got wins number one and two in their history, locking up a pair of bronzes. USA stars Sammy Sullivan and Kayla Cannett put on a show, scoring a fantastic full-field try and solo chip and chase, respectively. Some excellent play from Aki Raymond and Ethan Hager facilitated a score-fest for the men. Notably, Pittsburgh resident Misha Shorin added his name to the scoresheet for the Steeltoes.
In the women’s final, the Locals and Headliners provided a true clash of the titans. Headliners retained possession for most of the opening minutes, with the breakthrough finally coming in the hands of Jenn Salomon. Despite some good possession from the Locals, the Headliners scored again before halftime, thanks to Alyssa Porter. The Locals, however, were undeterred, with Tahlia Brody opening the second half immediately with a try. Great build-up play found star Stacey Waaka in space, and the “smiling assassin” would bring the Locals to within two. With only a few minutes left, everything hung in the balance until a try from Lizzie Gibson sealed the win for the Headliners and a return to the top of the podium.
The men’s final was a dream for the hometown Texas Team, and the crowd was ready to cheer them. A boo or two was heard from the Texas fans as the New York squad took the pitch. The boos seemed to motivate the Locals, as they jumped out to an early lead thanks to Josateki Vosalevu. Momentum dramatically shifted, however, as the Team scored four tries in a row, including a hattrick from Chris Aurich.
With the men's final seemingly out of reach and a lead of 22-7 for the Team, the Locals scored to pull one back with 45 seconds to play. With under 10 seconds to go, the Locals scored on a spectacular play immediately from the restart and declined the conversion to pull the score to 22-19. The jubilant crowd immediately switched to horror as the Locals corralled the restart again and looked to cement one of the wildest comebacks in rugby history. However, a last-ditch turnover defense spoiled the comeback and let the party begin in Austin as the Team took the tournament.
Canadian international and IRB World Rugby Women’s Player of the Year Magali Harvey was named Player of the Tournament for the Headliners women. And the Texas Team’s Chris Aurich was named Player of the Tournament for the men.
The Eastern Conference will next play in Pittsburgh on July 23, with bids to the final in DC on the line. All teams can still qualify for or miss the Championship, so everything will be on the line!
The Western Conference teams will have their turn as the circuit rolls on to Minneapolis, MN, this Saturday, June 24.
Headliners – 13
Locals – 6
Steeltoes – 3
Team – 1
Team – 13
Locals – 6
Steeltoes – 3
Team – 1
Team – 14
Headliners – 14
Locals – 12
Steeltoes – 6