Jacksonville Axemen take on the Brooklyn Kings

By Brian lowe (Photo Credit: Allene Rachal)

The much-anticipated 2019 USA Rugby League (USARL) national championship game is set to produce the most competitive title game in years when the reigning champion Jacksonville Axemen take on the Brooklyn Kings this coming Saturday, August 24, in the Empire State.

It is a replay of the 2018 Grand Final in which the Axemen beat the visiting Kings by 40 points, but as the old saying goes, that was then, and this is now.

Both teams go into the championship game with unbeaten records on the season. In fact, Jacksonville hasn’t dropped a game since July 2017, the last time they didn’t make it to the postseason, while the only loss the Kings have suffered in the past two seasons was last year’s Grand Final.

This year, Brooklyn has put together a 9-0 record and that doesn’t include the forfeit by the Northern Virginia (NOVA) Eagles in the North Conference semifinals. Jacksonville has posted an 8-0 record to date, although that mark could have been even better if not for a forfeit and another cancellation during the regular season.

The two teams are expected to be at or near full strength for Saturday’s championship decider so everything is pointing to what, by rights, should be a very competitive matchup.

Kings head coach Brent Richardson says he and his team learned a lot from last year’s Grand Final disappointment.

“We didn’t play to our potential,” he says. “We completed at 33 percent and we were missing tackles when we’d built our entire year on defence. I think a lot of inexperience got us last year.”

Even so, Richardson doesn’t think they need to change too much in terms of their game plan in preparation for Saturday’s rematch.

“I think we just need to play the type of football we’ve been playing all year, something we didn’t do last year.”

This weekend’s national championship game will be the first one in three years that has been hosted by the North Conference winners. The last time the USARL Grand Final was played in the north was in 2016 when Boston was the host city. The Philadelphia Fight beat the Axemen that year to win the national championship.

The previous two title games have been played at the home grounds of the South Conference champions, Atlanta (2017) and Jacksonville (2018).

It means that for the Axemen, it will be a new experience having to travel to the northeast and that, says head coach Sean Rutgerson, will present a big challenge all of its own. However, he says that’s part of the game and it won’t throw off their preparations.

“We’re really looking forward to it,” he says. “To go up there and to beat Brooklyn in their home state would be something really special for the Axemen.”

Rutgerson is expecting the Kings to be a different team from the one they fielded a year ago.

“Oh yeah, 100 percent they’ll be a different team on the back of not having to worry about blokes catching flights and whether they’re going to get there on time. The travel is a massive thing here because we don’t do it and some of these guys have never been on a flight and then had to play a game, so it’s something new.”

Rutgerson continues that Brooklyn has the same core of players from last year with plenty of experience and cool heads.

“They’ve got guys who are used to playing tight games and who have finals experience. We’ve got the experience from last year and we’ve got a good core group of players, so I’m hoping we can put on a real exciting match up there.”

This year’s USARL national championship game will be played at the Aviator Sports & Events Center at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York. It’s a multi-sport recreational complex featuring two full-size state-of-the art turf fields. Kickoff is scheduled for 4pm (ET).

It’s expected the game will be live streamed on the Kings’ Facebook page, as well as on YouTube. But if you can’t set aside the time to watch it, there will also be score updates on the Axemen’s Twitter account.