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A year’s worth of rugby culminates in one match this Saturday. The D1A National Championship in Moraga, Calif. will be fought between two familiar foes with plenty of history. Ever since 2013, the title in the top division of collegiate rugby has been decided between Saint Mary’s College of California and Life University with the series tied 2-2. This season, each program has enjoyed enormous success resulting in their fifth consecutive romp in the D1A National Championship on Saturday in front of a nationally televised audience on CBS Sports Network at 4pm PST/7pm EST.
For Life, the Running Eagles have racked up nine wins to an undefeated season following their national championship run last year. Playing in the difficult Mid-South Conference, Life swept the likes of Lindenwood, Davenport, Clemson, and the Varsity Cup Finalist, Arkansas State. In the D1A Playoffs, the Running Eagles battled Lindenwood for the third time emerging as the victors, 37-20. For the semifinals, Life stifled the attack of powerhouse BYU, 36-26, to advance to the National Championship.
Coach Scott Lawrence’s team philosophy this season is to keep it ASAP, or as simple as possible. “We’ve had some much rotation of our roster this year (29 players have suited up). So many student athletes went in and out that the plan can’t be overly complex. Most of our movement this year has been very simple. Not a lot of guys running off the ball, not a ton of options because those things are timing based. By necessity, we’ve kept it more simple.”
That mindset and style have produced some impressive statistics. During the season including the playoffs, Life has rung up 373 points on its opponents for an average of 41 points a game. On the defensive side, the squad has limited their foes to a mere 110 points and only 12 points a game. Its average margin of victory is 29.2 points a game against nationally ranked challengers.
When looking at his roster, Coach Lawrence indicated that everyone has a role to play. “If the locker room needs to be sorted, its’ Estevan Florez; if strength and conditioning intensity needs to come up, it's Mike Islava; if clarity is required, it’s Harley Davidson; levity, it’s Carson McCraw. If freshmen need to break habits, it's every upperclassman who volunteered as their mentor.”
“We don’t have a superstar or super thing we do,” Lawrence added. “It’s being consistent and doing those basic things. We aren’t seeing any particular pattern that says our line breaks or turnovers come from any one spot. They come from different places in each game.”
As for its test on Saturday, Lawrence has looked to the past to learn from its mistakes. “The most telling thing was last year in attack was we really only generated one line break in the entire game and it was a pick and drive over the line after 17 phases. [Saint Mary’s] plays very disciplined, well-structured defense with great individual one on one tackling. They trust themselves in that and they should. We have to prepare ourselves to deal with that through continuity and try to move them around defensively.”
Lawrence also saw that Saint Mary’s utilizes their incredible width and versatility on offense. “You’ll see that they front rowers moving the ball really well in some of the exchanges and they mix their backs and forwards well and play an all player all skills game. You really have to work together and connect defensively because the matchups you usually get can't really be applied in other games.”
“[Saint Mary’s is the] deserving #1 team in collegiate rugby right now,” said Lawrence in his characterization of his opponent. On Saturday, the Running Eagles will continue to play as they have all season and see what happens. “We are who we are,” Lawrence concluded. “What we can do is be our best selves. If that's good enough, that's it. If not, then it's a learning opportunity.”
Saint Mary’s College of California has enjoyed a remarkable year looking to avenge its narrow championship defeat in 2016. With its focus honed in on the ultimate prize, the Gaels have broken out to an 11-1 record to return to the D1A title game. After blasting through its California Conference season, Saint Mary’s split its series with BYU and edged this year’s Varsity Cup finalist, Cal, 27-24.
In the D1A Playoffs, Saint Mary’s’ matches, while competitive, the results were never in doubt. The Gaels drew San Diego State in quarterfinals and dispatched the Aztecs, 72-5. In the semifinals, Arizona was upended, 43-7. With Life on the horizon, Saint Mary’s believes it's in prime position to reclaim the trophy.
Coach Tim O’Brien describes his team as “intelligent and open minded with above average skills. [We employ] structured play with options at every turn.” That style of play led by captain Kevin O’Connor has translated into wins on the pitch. In 12 games this year, Saint Mary’s has beaten its opponents by an average of 51 points a game. The Gaels held their adversaries to less than ten points five times this season for a 10.4 per game average. On offense, they have put up a staggering 738 points scoring 61.5 points a game.
With the reliable boot and resourcefulness of Dylan Audsley at fullback, quick thinking of Holden Yungert at scrumhalf, and fleet foot of Aaron Matthews at center, the Gael backline is poised to break out. Eightman Vili Helu, flanker Alec Barton, and captain O’Connor anchor the pack to drive the team forward.
Coach O’Brien said that consistency, precision, and little divine intervention can lead Saint Mary’s to victory on Saturday. With that being said, O’Brien considers Life to be “nearly unstoppable. They are big, fast, structured, and They took down one of America’s finest programs (BYU) with ease. They seem nearly unstoppable.”
In the three of the four previous championship meetings between Saint Mary’s and Life, the game has been decided by less than a converted try. 2017’s iteration will be no different. If you can’t be at the game at Saint Mary’s Stadium in Moraga, Calif. on Saturday, tune in at 4pm PST/7pm EST on CBS Sports Network for all the glory and excitement. With these teams involved, we are in store for a great 80 minutes of rugby.