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St. Mary's vs CWU. Karen Drinkwater Photo.

On the first weekend of the New Year, Central Washington trekked 11 hours south to gauge its program versus top-flight competition of California. Things didn’t go as planned as the Wildcats lost to UC-Davis, 33-14, on Friday night and then got blasted, 73-5, by Saint Mary’s on Saturday.  The coaches at CWU know where they stand now and only have room to improve in the spring.

The first stop was in Davis, Calif. for a romp against the Aggies of UC-Davis under the Friday night lights. CWU sent a team of developmental players on the pitch that included ten players making their college debuts. UC-Davis came out ready to match the physicality of CWU and scored the first 15 points of the match with tries from Mike Buonarati and Tarik Sinora and a penalty from Sinora. Not to be shut out, CWU’s Jack Wendling scored a forwards try at the end of the half to bring the score to 15-7 at the break.

The Aggies continued to press in the second half. Sinora’s second penalty and a try by Cole March extended the lead to 23-7 before CWU’s Ivan Pula found the endzone for the Wildcats. Maia Silva’s intercept try and a brilliant team try from Kevin Brookshire finished the day for UC-Davis and the 33-14 victory.

CWU’s head coach Todd Thornley said that his side got completely outworked by a side who wanted it more. Defense and work rate were keys to the win for the Aggies. “We set out to make defense our main aim for the game and my guys worked extremely hard to keep width and line speed,” UC-Davis head coach Andy Malpass said.

“I was very pleased with my team's defensive effort, work rate and line speed all helped stifle Central Washington’s obvious physical advantage, with Central's big runners being met before the advantage line,” Malpass added.

In his fourth game of rugby, second row Cole March earned Malpass’ Man of the Match. “The kid is special. He punches so far above his weight, his work rate energy around the park was phenomenal.”

As for UC-Davis’ future in its first season in D1A, Malpass indicated, “I just want us to be competitive. I’m not looking at results, I’m looking at the performances the guys put in. We are trying to play a style of rugby, play in a way where the guys buy into, and we are trying to build a program.”

CWU didn’t have much time to rest as the A-side met #2 ranked Saint Mary’s on Saturday afternoon in Moraga, Calif. Both sides had kinks to iron out but the Gaels struck first through a Sean Yacoubian try. The Wildcats responded with an extended trip inside the 22, but after sustained pressure at the goal line that included three restarts, the St. Mary’s defense held and escaped without any damage.

It was Gael rugby from that point on as it scored 11 straight tries before CWU’s Scott Dean avoided the shutout with a late score. Yacoubian, Anthony Rodriguez, Tommy Wallace, and Aaron Matthews each ended with a pair of tries for SMC with Tevite Lopeti, Vili Helu, Michael McCarthy, Tom Brusati, and Derek Ellingson dotting down one each.

After a long winter break, St. Mary’s coach Tim O’Brien was pleased with what he saw against CWU. “The 'spark' is playing ball together on game day. We put in a lot of work during the week and playing meaningful games beats the heck out of practice.”

To almost blank a team like CWU is a big accomplishment for the Gaels. “We realize the importance of great defense and get after it best we can. I think the adage is, 'It’s easier to destruct than construct'. Defense is a constant work in progress."

With the graduations of captain Kevin O’Connor, scrumhalf Holden Yungert, and fullback Dylan Audsley, St. Mary’s looks like it hasn’t lost a step, just adjusted to personnel it has. “We just take whoever turns up and 'go with it' best we can,” O’Brien said. “It's an enormously fun and challenging puzzle. Many teams recruit heavily, we don't have that luxury, yet.”

When asked how his guys played, O’Brien responded, “Ronan Murphy, our sophomore lock, was stellar. He's a prototypical SMC ball player. We heard he was slow, soft and not really into it when he turned up. Since Day 1, the kid has been superb and has huge upside. Our opponents need to pay attention to Ronan... [The veterans] all stood tall, great blue-collar work ethic.”

O’Brien said that his team’s main takeaway from the first match of year is that the Gaels have a much-untapped upside, superb player leadership, and definitely has fun on gameday.

“The great thing about Saturday is we came into the game very 'leg weary' after consecutive days of training and responded well,” O’Brien concluded. “We are focused on playing as much rugby as possible to enhance the college rugby experience. We're grateful CWU traveled to play. They have many talented guys and will do damage to opponents this season.”

As for CWU, Thornley had nothing but praise for St. Mary’s after the match. “Saint Mary’s really do set the bar in college rugby and now it's our opportunity to try and meet the bar and commit ourselves to becoming a better program. Their pace of play was absolutely outstanding. What drove that was their motors in terms of their ability to get around the park and shift the ball into space and fly around. They created a lot of quick ball and we couldn’t deal with the pace of play.”

CWU will use this weekend as a teaching tool for the rest of the season. “I think we got a real assessment of where we are at as rugby players,” Thornley said. “There are a lot of areas where we can improve from and a lot of areas we can fix. I was definitely a real humbling experience for our group. The beauty and puzzle of it are that it’s January, not March or April when its playoff time and we can figure it out and fix some things.”

CWU plays the Seattle Saracens next Saturday before facing Lindenwood on the 27th. For UC-Davis, the Mustangs will travel to the Dennis Storer Classic to play against the likes of UCLA, Cal, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine. Finally, St. Mary’s begins its conference schedule next week at Santa Clara.