Throwback Thursday: the Denver Barbarians win the 1990 USA Rugby Division 1 National Championship
Originally published in Rugby Magazine | [RMR Note: In 1990, tries were only worth 4 points.]
"In their 7th trip to the final four, the Denver Barbarians delighted a hometown crowd of 2000 by winning the 1990 Steinlager USA Rugby National Club Championship. Led by MVP back Mike DeJong (who scored all 21 of his team's points), and forward MVP Greg Lang, the Barbos defeated 7-time national champion Old Blues 21-13.
An awesome array of talent was on display at Englewood High, as 17 current and former Eagles took part.
Denver Barbarians 15, Chicago Blaze 9
May 12, 1990 (National Semi-Final)
In the championship's first semifinal, the Chicago Blaze, champions of the Midwest RFU, were definite longshots. However, a determined Blaze team, in its initial final four appearance, gave the Denver Barbarians all they could handle. Spurred on by the play of Eagle flyhalf Joe Clarkson and a fit back row, the Windy City led early and tied the game after 75 minutes, only to see Denver pull away to victory.
Barbo President Dave Benson commented that, "The Blaze represented the Midwestern style with very hard forwards... but the altitude and it being their first time at the nationals, took its toll." Indeed, the Blaze pack was hard, but seemed to wear down as the altitude-conditioned Barbarians played 10-man rugby.
The electronic scoreboard recorded the game's first points after only 52 seconds, when Blaze flyhalf Joe Clarkson rocketed a drop goal through the uprights from 33 meters to give Chicago a 3-0 lead.
Play was even for the next 17 minutes, with both sides relying heavily on the kicking game and generally feeling each other out. Each team squandered scoring chances. With 12 minutes elapsed, Clarkson missed a 40-meter penalty kick and three minutes later Denver wing David Tresemer couldn't handle a pass from DeJong at Chicago's 5-meter line.
The Barbos broke into the scoring column on an alert play by #8 Adam Brickner. Three Barbarians were all over Clarkson as he tried to kick to touch from a Blaze-controlled 5-meter scrum. The kick was cleanly blocked and Brickner dove onto the ball 1 meter into the end zone. DeJong's conversion gave Denver a 6-3 lead.
Play remained scoreless for the next 20 minutes. During this period both kickers were off target. DeJong missed two drop goals and a penalty kick, while Clarkson shanked a drop goal and barely missed a penalty attempt.
Finally, with 37 minutes gone, DeJong nailed a 15-meter penalty kick after Denver had won 3 successive scrums inside the Blaze 10-meter line, upping the Barbos lead to 9-3.
Lightning struck twice as the Barbarians were again slow to respond to a free kick one minute into the half and Clarkson's drop goal from 35 meters cut Denver's lead to 9-6.
In the next 34 minutes, both teams botched numerous scoring opportunities. However, one sure Chicago try was thwarted 70 minutes into the match by Jim Bob Glabman's defensive gem.
Clarkson made a long break to the Denver 12, then dished to lock Al Kemp, who attempted to chip over Glabman. The Denver wing reacted instantaneously, leaping high to snare the kick and abort what should have been a Klemp try.
With only 5 minutes remaining, Clarkson nailed a 30 meter penalty goal to tie the game at 9-9. The Denver fans, fearing another playoff loss, grew silent in frustration.
After Mike DeJong missed a drop goal from 25 meters, Denver made two curious decisions which, perversely, paid off in the game-winning try. Awarded a penalty at the 25, they passed up the kick, opting to run, and got stuffed - but Chicago hadn't retreated 10 meters. Thus, with two minutes left and the game tied, the Barbos had a penalty from 15 meters in front of the posts. Amazingly they ran again, and were stopped by Chicago's backs. Lucikly for the Barbos, they won the ruck and DeJong fed a streaking Glabman who touched down in the corner.
The Denver players and fans, finally sensing victory, went wild, as chants of "Jim Bob" echoed through the stadium, and coach Sean Edris' expression changed from apoplectic to ecstatic.
DeJong converted, the Barbarians held off the Blaze through injury time, and the match ended 15-9, Denver. The Barbos were on to the championship, but after this sluggish affair, their stock had dropped considerably in many observers' opinions.
Referee: Don Reordan
Denver Barbarians 21, Old Blues 13
May 13, 1990
The "expert" money was on the Old Blues in the Steinlager National Final. The seven-time National Club Champion would start eight different players than appeared in the semifinal to give the team an energy boost after their draining win over Washington.
This was not expected to affect the Blues' skill-level, as they are one of the few teams in the country with the depth to sit former Eagles' one game, then play them the next while pulling out other Eagles.
Denver, after its lackluster victory over Chicago, chose to change only two players. The Barbos' professed confidence but some Denver fans equated them with the Broncos - losers of 3 recent Super Bowls.
With Bo Meyersieck having replaced Chris O'Brien at flyhalf (O'Brien moved to fullback), the Blues' match strategy appeared to lean toward the running game, rather than the kicking style preferred by O'Brien.
Four minutes into the match, the Californians' backline struck. A Barbo knock-on resulted in a 5 meter scrum to Old Blues. Scrumhalf Kenny Meyersieck dummied to his center then skipped three men to wing Moses Similai who cut between two Barbos for the score. Chris O'Brien notched the conversion to give the Blues an early 6-0 lead.
Seldom does the key play in a close game occur only thirteen minutes in. However this was the case, as Denver's Eagle flyhalf, Mike DeJong, who minutes earlier had slotted a 27-meter penalty kick (6-3), instigated a fracas in the Old Blues end and was nearly ejected from the match.
In a ruck ten meters from the Old Blue line, DeJong committed two dangerous infractions. He vaulted into the mass of players, contesting the ball, and lifted his knees as he did so, catching Bo Meyersieck squarely in the chest.
Referee Dan Reordan warned DeJong for dangerous playa as Meyersieck was helped off with separated ribs. O'Brien moved to flyhalf, with Rob Salabar coming in at fullback. Several Old Blues had to be pulled away from DeJong.
After the match, Reordan admitted that he came very close to ejecting the player who would eventually score all 21 of Denver's points.
Twenty minutes into the match, Denver committed a scrummage infraction at midfield, but Chris O'Brien's 51-meter kick sailed wide of the right post. The penalty was reflective of the early going, as both sides looked jittery, making mental errors and having trouble getting their backlines to gel.
Two minutes later DeJong lofted a moonshot of an up-and-under to the Old Blues 5 and the Barbarian forwards hit fullback Rob Salabar as he caught the ball. Two of the Barbos were caught offside, however, negating the scoring opportunity.
For the next 6 minutes Denver had the better of play, continuously gaining position in the Blues end with DeJong's long touch kicks. The Denver flyhalf almost tied the score with 37 minutes gone as his attempted drop goal from 35 meters was barely wide.
The Old Blues stormed back as the half ran into injury time. Rob Salabar made a break from inside midfield and passed to wing Dean Klisura who quickly fed fleet-footed Chris O'Brien. The Eagle flyhalf turned on the jets and appeared to have a certain try with only one man to beat, 10 meters out. A bit too unselfishly, though, O'Brien dumped the oval to a trailing Salabar who was tackled out of bounds, 2 meters from the score.
Old Blues won rucked ball off Denver's lineout, but stalwart tackling by Denver thwarted O'Brien's attempt to score barely a meter from the line. In the ensuing ruck the Blues were called for raking, and DeJong kicked to touch to end the last real threat of the half and leave he score at 6-3, Old Blues.
Only one minute into the 2nd half the Old Blues were penalized at their own 35 meter line and DeJong capitalized with an easy penalty kick to knot the score at 6-6.
The Barbo pack continued to play even with, if not outplay, the Old Blue forwards. Five minutes into the half the Denver scrum asserted itself by blowing the Blues back a good 5 meters. Barbo scrumhalf David James flipped the ball to DeJong who attacked the retreating Pacific Coast backs.Making a cut to the outside, he appeared to have space to go for the try, but was forced out just past midfield. Six minutes later, Denver took its first lead of the match when DeJong slotted a 30-meter drop goal after Denver controlled a scrum - 9-6 Barbos.
The large, raucous contingent of Denver supporters went wild for their hometown underdogs.
They grew quiet two minutes later, however, when the Old Blues stormed back. Utilizing their great athletic ability the Blues' put together a series of long runs capped by prop Isi Havili's 20 meter burst. O'Brien missed the conversion, leaving the score 10-9, Old Blue. The score flip-flopped again when DeJong and O'Brien exchanged penalties, leaving the Old Blues with a 13-12 advantage.
The atmosphere was electric as the fans and players of both teams were now thoroughly convinced that it was anybody's game. In fact, Denver went ahead just one minute after O'Brien's kick when DeJong made the play of the tournament.
Off a set scrum, Denver won against the head, James quickly flipped the ball to DeJong and the flyhalf launched a drop goal from 50 meters that easily cleared the posts.
As the crowd went crazy, the scoreboard changed to 15-13, Denver; the Barbos would never trail again.
Denver remained on the attack and in the 29th minute, DeJong lofted a high up-and-under to the Blues' 7 meter line. Wing Eric Whitaker fielded the ball and was immediately buried by the hustling Barbarians. What looked to be a serious threat was negated by Whitaker's excellent decision, as he was given a mark and kicked away to touch.
The pace was furious as Denver threatened again moments later. Old Blues tried to run the ball after a Barbo lineout infraction at the Blues 20 meter mark, but the Denver defense stuffed the penalty play. For a full 3 minutes both sides ran at each other inside Blues territory; outstanding tackling and aggressive rucking by both sides kept play moving until the ball was knocked forward by Denver with 36 minutes gone.
When the stadium clock showed no time left, the decibel level of the crowd rivalled that of a rock concert. If the Barbos could hold on through injury time the city's first men's National Championship would be won by the Barbarians. Mike DeJong and his teammates would erase some of the sting John Elway and the Broncos feeble Super Bowl performances.
At 43 minutes, the Barbarian forwards, as they'd done all day, scrummaged well, winning the ball at the Blues ten-meter line. James passed straight to the Barbos' bread and butter, DeJong, who carried the ball in from 20 meters on a slithering, juking run. Four Blues had a shot at the flyhalf but he scored untouched.Converting his own try, DeJong brought his point total for the match to 21 and the Barbos lead to 21-13.
Seconds later the delirious Denver supporters stormed the field as the Barbarians captured the 1990 Steinlager USA National Club Championship.
Referee: Don Reordan
For the second year in a row, the Denver Barbarians hosted the tourney - and again did a first-rate job. Barbo President Dave Benson and his crew ran everything like clockwork - from the buses to the stadium, to the "ballkids" who patrolled the sideline. This year Dave even managed to provide two sunny days for the players and fans.
The Washington front row of McDonald, Robbins, and Blackmore played exceptionally well against the Old Blues. Surprisingly, none of the three (all former ERU and/or Eagle selections) were invited to the ERU camp.
Notable by his absence was Bob Watkins, USARFU President, slated to speak at the banquet. Former President Terry Fleener presented Sunday's post-match awards in lieu of Watkins.
Highlighting the social events of the weekend was the Saturday night banquet, where over 500 nattily dressed players and guests enjoyed a great meal, Steinlager beer, and some great speeches.
Ian Nixon hosted the event with a wit that shocked some and had others laughing heartily. When the captains spoke, Old Blues' captain Ken Meyersieck, a former Eagle, told the crowd that the semifinal match versus Washington was, "the toughest game I've played in my rugby career."
Finally, David Archer, the national rugby coordinator for Steinlager, sponsor of United States rugby, took the mic. He complimented the final four clubs, then offered a bit of advice: "Your business is rugby. You must take the professionalism you've demonstrated here back to your unions and, when it comes your time, don't walk away from the game - give something back."
As always, thanks must go to Karen Kast, the backbone of the national office, whose presence and organizational expertise were exceptional.
Last but not least, the referees are owed a great debt for the time they invested.Don Reordan, Jim Russell, and Scott Miller did a great job - especially in defusing some potentially explosive situations.
How Sweet It Was
Russ Isaac, the Barbarian and Eagle lock, had been to numerous final fours with both Old Blue (NY) and the Barbos. As he walked among the throng of happy players and supporters, he was asked to sum up his feelings: "I wanted this more than anything... this is the best feeling of my rugby career." A huge smile on his face, Isaac joined the crowd lifting Barbo coach Sean Edris high in the air."
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