Axemen win first rugby championship in club history

Spinnaker

The Jacksonville Axemen won their first American National Rugby League Championship Aug. 28 after defeating the New Haven Warriors 34-14 in the AMNRL Grand Final in Conshohocken, Pa.

The win comes a season after the Axemen, who play their home games at UNF’s Hodges Stadium, lost in last year’s AMNRL Grand Final after going undefeated the entire season.

Axemen co-founder, coach and player Daryl “Spinner” Howland said he felt the team had to lose a championship before they won one, and he feels winning one after losing last year makes their first championship feel so much nicer.

“It’s a dream come true,” Howland said. “It’s one of my happiest days of my career and one of my happiest days of my life. I will never ever forget that day.”

The championship did not come without a struggle. It was a physical game that led to broken noses and stitches for some of the players. The Axemen found themselves down 14-10 at halftime and memories of last season’s let down started to crawl back into the heads of the players, Howland said.

Howland said the Axemen were not composed in the first half, and some of the guys were trying to do too much. They were missing tackles and forcing passes.

However, the Axemen came out of the half composed after going through the same thing a year ago and scored 24 unanswered points. Halfback Brent Shorten, who was named MVP after scoring three tries and four conversions for 20 points, led the team.

Howland said fitness played a huge role in the way the Axemen came out and played in the second half. He also pointed to the fact that they did not panic. He said they just went out and played their game at their speed. Howland was very impressed with how his team reacted.

He said he finally felt like the team had control of the game and was going to win with about 10 minutes left on the clock. He said it is close to impossible for a team to come back from three tries down with that amount of time. He started to get excited and even admitted to shaking a bit.

The only thing that calmed him down was when he had to come back into the game after an injury to another player. Howland had played earlier but did not expect to have to come back into the game. However, he did find time to score the final points of the game on the last play of a championship season for the Axemen.

“I basically fell over the try,” Howland said. “It’s one of those things where it’s so bizarre you don’t even dream about it. They say things like that happen in slow motion.”

After the try, Howland found himself having to attempt the extra point conversion, something he wasn’t used to, since their kicker was hurt.

“I hadn’t taken an extra point conversion in about four years,” Howland said. “But I put her down on the tee and took a couple of steps back, a couple of steps sideways and just belted it right over the black dot.”

Howland hopes the win will add to the popularity he feels rugby already has in Jacksonville, he said. He was surprised with the amount of fans that made the trip from Jacksonville up to Pennsylvania. He said fans were even at the airport waiting to congratulate the Axemen Aug. 29 when they got back.

With the Axemen not losing a home game at Hodges Stadium in the past two seasons and more people attending and becoming fans of rugby, Howland has confirmed the Atlantic Cup will be played at Hodges Stadium Nov. 14-21.

The cup will feature the national rugby teams from the U.S., Jamaica and Canada. If attendance goes well and the tournament is run well, Howland hopes to put in a bid for a 2013 Rugby World Cup qualifying tournament, which will take place in 2011, to be played at UNF. Howland is very happy for the relation between UNF and the Axemen and said he would love to bring an event like that to Hodges Stadium.

“UNF, what a great partner,” Howland said. “I mean, honestly they have been not just a venue. They’re just not a place we just rent a stadium from. They literally are a part of everything we do. It’s first class. It’s just a quality establishment.”

The Axemen started their celebration Aug. 30 at the Times Grill in Jacksonville but look to take about three weeks off before starting back up and training to defend their new championship.