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In a game featuring eight lead changes, the San Diego Legion forced the last one at full-time to steal a 35-32 win over the Houston Sabercats. Outside center Anthony Salaber scored a hat-trick in the first 25 minutes, helping the Legion to a 21-20 halftime lead. The result drops the Sabercats to 1-2 and lifts the Legion to 2-1.
Houston broke the early stalemate with a superb try in the 10th minute. The former Fijian captain, Osea Kolinisau, broke the line and offloaded to Conor Mills, who gashed the Legion. At the ensuing breakdown, scrumhalf Connor Murphy popped a box kick over the heads of the Legion, and Alex Elkins grabbed the ball on the bounce. He was brought down inches short of the line, and Kolinisau picked from the base and scored.
Sam Windsor’s conversion attempt was nailed, and Houston was back in the attacking end right after the kickoff. San Diego fielded the restart, but at the breakdown Siaosi Mahoni was pinged for obstructing a charge down attempt from Houston, and Windsor slotted a penalty kick from more than 40 meters out. The successful kicks made it 10-0 after 10 minutes.
The pendulum swung back San Diego’s way in the 17th minute when Cam Dolan stole a Houston lineout near San Diego’s 22. Inside center JP du Plessis made the initial break through the Sabercat midfield, and he offloaded to Nate Augspurger, who found Salaber for his first try. He rounded Windsor and evaded a swiping paw from Mills along the way. Dylan Audsley nailed the conversion, pulling the home team to within three.
Salaber made it a double a few minutes later, catching an offload from Audsley, who fended Murphy while charging to within 10 meters from pay dirt. The Cal All-American had to stiff-arm Zach Pangelinan, but didn’t have far to go. Audsley added two more to swing the lead San Diego’s way, 14-10.
Fortune favored Houston in the 25th minute when referee Chris Assmus missed a knock-on in a tackle. The ball stayed with the Sabercats, and Kolinisau burst through the defense and offloaded unsuccessfully for Pangelinan, who knocked on. Advantage was being held for the Legion being offside, and Windsor cut the deficit to one with a successful kick at posts.
Windsor doubled up with a try in short order. Malacchi Esdale made some inroads up the right touchline, then on the left touch line Matt Trouville made a break before feeding wing Alex Elkins. He blasted Audsley in the try-saving tackle, but Windsor found a crease on the next phase, sneaking in for the try. He slotted the conversion, too, regaining the lead, 20-14, for Houston.
Salaber snatched the lead back for the Legion two minutes later, securing a hat-trick and a bonus point. Ryan Matyas did most of the work, streaking past a frozen Esdale on the weak wing off a lineout, pirouetting through a failed tackle attempt before being brought down. The ball went to the other sideline, where Salaber took an offload from Audsley and threw off Kolinisau on his way in for another score. Audsley converted – San Diego 21, Houston 20 with five minutes in the half.
The Legion nearly added to their tally right on halftime, when Matyas was put through a gap by Leader and seemed destined to slide under the posts, but a late challenge resulted in a knock-on, ending the half.
Windsor signaled the fifth lead change early in the second half, slotting a penalty to put Houston up 23-21. An extreme bout of luck then shined on San Diego. A boneheaded decision by Leader to cross kick a penalty instead of take an attacking five-meter lineout resulted in a maul from the Houston Sabercats. Du Plessis then ripped the ball from the Houston maul and ran back into the attacking five-meter. A phase later Pat Blair slammed over the go-ahead try, 28-23.
Windsor brought the Sabercats a little closer with a penalty kick near the hour mark. He teed up another shot from just shy of 50 meters after Salaber was called offside, but this one sailed wide left, leaving Houston shy two points. Windsor got a redo two minutes later, and this time he cashed in, putting the Sabercats up one, 29-28.In the 74th minute, after a period of penalties from San Diego, Kolinisau extended the lead with a successful drop goal. The impressive display of skill made it 32-28 to Houston with less than five minutes to play.
Houston had possession in its own end with three minutes to play when Murphy made the odd decision to kick the ball back to San Diego. The Legion seemed to bail the Sabercats out by getting tackled into touch, but the lineout was deemed not straight, giving the Legion one last attacking set piece.
The Sabercats racked up successive penalties, and the mounting errors with the game on the line resulted in a yellow card to reserve back rower Pago Haini. At full time, San Diego opted for a five-meter lineout with an extra man. They won it, set up a maul, and Tony Purpura slammed over the game winner with a pick-and-go.
San Diego 35
Tries: Salaber (3), Purpura, Blair
Cons: Audsley (5)
Tries: Kolinisau, Windsor
Cons: Windsor (2)
Pens: Windsor (5)