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In the rubber match between Saint Mary’s and Life for the D1A National Championship, the match came down to who could handle the pressure of the moment. With the golden boot connecting on six penalties and a try, Gael fullback Dylan Audsley powered his team to the 30-24 win after trailing at halftime. The Saint Mary’s defense stood up the challenge and capitalized on Life’s penalty trouble. The victory gives Saint Mary’s its third D1A National Championship and second in a row.
According to Audsley, “Defensively, we were outstanding. We had mistakes, but it’s about moving on to the next play one at a time. Defensively, Life was really strong, good team, very well structured and we stood up to that today. It’s a testament to how we played defensively.”
“[To battle back in the second half,] it comes from a structure and a gameplan that we practice every week, but it mainly the relationships with the guys next to you. It’s the accountability, sacrifice, and trust. That’s what we live by and we have been living by that all season.”
On a beautiful day in sun-soaked Moraga, Calif., Life started the game with the deep kickoff. Each side tested the opposing defenses keeping the ball in between the 22s. A not releasing penalty outside the 22 gave Life the first shot at points three minutes in. Wing Sam Cowley’s kick dinged off the post and SMC attempted to bring it out.
Defensive pressure caused a forward pass penalty which gave Life another chance inside the 22. Lock Mike Islava broke a tackle and with a mighty second effort, dived over the line for a try under the posts. Cowley’s conversion was good and the Running Eagles held the early 7-0 lead.
On the ensuing restart, a charged down kick gave Saint Mary’s its first scoring opportunity in the red zone. Stout defense by Life marched the Gaels back and Audsley’s penalty after an offside call cut the lead to 7-3 nine minutes in.
Life kicked off and recovered the restart, but a turnover had the ball go the other way. A high tackle on the sideline gave Audsley another shot at goal from 30 meters out. The kick was true and Life only led by one point, 7-6.
The Gaels attempted to build on their momentum, but Life’s stifling defense thwarted the attack. A misplaced ball by the Life wing on a kick gave Saint Mary’s a lineout just inside the 22. Effective phase play worked the ball to the five-meter line where scrumhalf Holden Yungert found Audsley whose step to the outside froze the defense to sprint in for the score. After the conversion, the Gaels took their first lead of the game 13-7 with 22 minutes left.
After some furious back and forth play, Saint Mary’s got its first big break when Life’s Duncan Van Schalkwyk was shown the yellow card for coming in from the side. Audsley took advantage and tacked on another penalty to go up 16-7.
Life didn’t go into defensive mode being down a man and attacked both sides of the ball. The Running Eagles kept the Gaels pinned inside their 22 and after a charged down kick inside the endzone. A scrum penalty at the five went quick and hooker Brian Muntanga barreled over four defenders for the try against the post. Cowley nailed the conversion to pull within two points of the lead, 16-14.
Back to full strength, Life continued to put Saint Mary’s under pressure on offense and defense. In the 38th minute, a not releasing call gave Cowley all the chance he needed to retake the lead at 17-16. A turnover in the final two minutes after the restart and then a penalty to Life sent the Running Eagles downfield. Life couldn’t put it in the final seconds of the half, but was up by a point at the break.
Seven minutes into the second half, Life found itself in scoring position after line breaks by Cody Melphy, Mitch Wilson, and Cowley. Saint Mary’s forced a turnover but knocked it on in the process giving Life a five-meter scrum. Scrumhalf Ryan Rees connected with a streaking Melphy who dodged a defender for the try. Cowley’s conversion gave Life the eight-point lead at 24-16.
The teams exchanged long breaks by Life’s Muntanga and SMC’s Vili Helu, but the Running Eagles ran into penalty trouble again after Harley Davidson was binned for a professional offside foul. Audsley capitalized with a penalty to make it a one-score game at 24-19 with 30 minutes left.
After battling within the 22s for the next few minutes, a vicious counter-ruck by Gaels sent Helu free down the sideline until he was tackled into touch at the opposing 22. A not straight lineout gave the ball back to SMC. A penalty following the lineout allowed Audsley to further cut into the Life lead. From the sideline, Audsley narrowed the tally to two points, 24-22.
With Life’s Davidson back from the bin, the final 20 minutes of rugby was intense. Saint Mary’s regained the lead in the 65th minute with Audsley’s sixth penalty and 25th point of the game following excellent scrummaging from the Gaels.
The defenses ramped up the pace, especially with Saint Mary’s in the counter rucking. After an extended Life possession that ended with a knock-on, SMC captain Kevin O’Connor took the eightman pick from the back of the scrum 50 meters where he offloaded to Yungert in support for the Superman dive into the try zone. The conversion attempt was charged down by Life to keep the score within a converted try at 30-24.
With less than five minutes remaining, SMC took the restart but kicked away possession back to Life. The Running Eagles bashed against the defense, but a turnover gave the ball back to the Gaels. It was the Life offense against the Saint Mary’s defense in the final two minutes.
A Gaels’ scrum gave them the ball with a minute left and when the referee called full time, an errant kick by Audsley failed to find touch. Life scrambled to advance the ball, but offsetting penalties ended the game giving Saint Mary’s its third D1A National Championship.
Asked on his thoughts on the game, Saint Mary’s head coach Tim O’Brien said, “I thought we were the best defensive team in the US and Life has dominated us. We had a couple of lessons to learn from the Life guys on defense. We were a pretty tenacious group wire to wire. The kids just stayed after it, created opportunities, and capitalized.”
“We got pretty strong in the scrums [in the second half],” O’Brien added. “We stole two balls in a row and I think that was the difference maker. Dylan is quite a weapon with his foot.”
In the losing effort, Life assistant coach Colton Cariaga said, “We went away from some of the things that got us here. Saint Mary’s is a good team that puts pressure on you that causes you to get out of your systems... The result of that was being down to 14 men for 20 minutes of the game. That’s a tough thing to deal with.”
Life head coach Scott Lawrence offered his thoughts saying, “We went in a played the #1 team in the country in a final the best we could. I thought we performed admirably. It’s always going to be a tough task, a tight game.”
“The breakdown was a bit of a guessing game at the end of the game,” Lawrence concluded. “We were very fatigued because we had two yellow cards so that takes a lot of energy to play a man down. They put us under pressure in the end when it counted.”
Holden Yungert earned the D1A Player of the Game for the final try and excellent scrumhalf play. A great 80 minutes of rugby capping off the 2016-2017 D1A Collegiate season.