TORONTO, Sept. 28, 2017 —
Overturned wheelchairs, strong blocking and speed scoring were showcased as national teams competed here at the Mattamy Athletics Centre during preliminary matches leading to today’s rugby semifinals at the 2017 Invictus Games.
The United Kingdom takes on Australia at 5 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, and then Denmark takes on the U.S. at 6 p.m. EDT to determine who goes on to the bronze match at 8:15 p.m. EDT and the gold match at 9:15 p.m. EDT. The U.S. is the defending rugby champion from last year’s Invictus Games.
“We’re looking to defend our title. We’re not giving anything up. If a team wants it, they’ve got to come get it from us,” said medically retired Marine Corps Sgt. Anthony McDaniel, U.S. rugby team captain. “We have good communication and each other’s backs; picking each other up and helping each other out. We’ve got a solid team. It’s all defense and then we just execute on offense. It’s going to be a lot of fun for everybody.”
McDaniel said about half the team played in last year’s game. “We’re balancing out the lineups. It’s working well,” he said. “The new guys are listening to the guys who have been playing for a few years, putting them in the right positions in order to put our team in the right position.”
McDaniel said communication is a key factor to the team’s success. “Win, lose or draw, we stick together,” he said. “We always communicate. We have each other’s back, and it’s a good group of guys, as always. No matter who’s on the team, no matter what year, we always play well together.”
The U.S. team lost its first pool match to the U.K., but came back to win against France and Italy. The U.K. and Denmark went undefeated. Australia won two of its matches but lost to Denmark.
According to fans, other competitors and Danish rugby team captain army Cpl. Mark Peters, the U.K.’s rugby team is favored to win. Stuart Robinson, the U.K. rugby team captain and a medically retired British Army corporal, said his team has been doing really well.
“The game against the U.S. was probably our hardest game. We actually played pretty well and came away with a victory and then the next two games, Italy and the Ontario [Canada] select team, again, both powerful opposition, but we came away with good results,” he said. “We gelled together as a team and got the cobwebs blown away.”
He said strength and depth on the squad is the U.K.’s biggest strength. “We don’t rely on just one player. We’ve got a lot of different players who can bring something else to the game and for them to come on and perform in every single game that we’ve played, it just shows how strong and deep our squad is,” he said.
Robinson said about half of his team competed last year at Invictus in Orlando, Florida, and three members also competed at the first Invictus Games in London in 2014.
“We’ve got a bit of experience but it’s always good to bring new blood in and give them a bit of opportunity to compete, as well,” he said.
The U.K. has a strong offense, Robinson said but other teams shouldn’t discount its defense. “We’re quite optimistic about our chances but the semifinal will be a tough game, and we’re not counting our chickens, just yet,” he said. “We are looking forward to playing and hopefully coming away with a victory.”
Like the U.S. team, the U.K. team has a strong team ethos, Robinson said. “We’re military; we’re all from the same background,” he said. “We all have that same team ethos where we work together and look out for one another. The teamwork is just amazing. We’ve been together now for about 12 months. We’ve bonded quite well and for us to come out here and compete on such a large stage, we can show just how together we are.”
Peters is confident about his team’s chances.
“We played pretty well. We had a plan and executed the plans almost perfectly,” he said. “We knew what we were going to play and how we were going to play it. We weren’t sure what Australia would do but we knew if we played our game, we would have a good chance of beating them, and we did.”
The Denmark team’s biggest strength is its speed, Peters said. “We have tremendous speed all around,” he said. “We also have good stamina. So if we can just maintain our speed, the other team is going to get tired.”
Last year, Denmark took the silver medal against the U.S. at the Invictus Games. Denmark faces off again with the U.S. in the semifinals.
“Every year, the U.S. looks strong, but I’ve been watching the U.K. and they are strong,” Peters said. “They’re probably the favorites to win this. We’re going to have fun and try to go as far as we can. These three games were a lot of fun for us. Everybody is almost placed equally all the way around so it’s perfect. We have a good lineup.”
Camaraderie among the competing teams “is amazing,” Robinson said. “We’re all from a military background and we all compete on such a massive stage. We’re all here for the same reason,” he said.
“Even before the competition, as soon as we get here, we’re looking for people from other countries that we met from years prior because you build those relationships so quick,” McDaniel said. “Even though we’ve won against each other, we’re always cheering each other on, all of the countries. We want to see everyone do well.”
He added, “Invictus is a place where anything’s possible. We’re all going through things but if you can come out here, even if you could just watch it, you can see that anything’s possible. There are so many people here with so many different types of disabilities but you see them giving their all with a smile on their face and everybody cheering them on, picking them up. It’s an extended family throughout all of the other countries. We’re all here for each other.”
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)