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It certainly could be. Despite some strange and possibly devastating player losses, the Gaels keep putting in good performances.
Last weekend, when they beat Utah, wasn’t the best game for either, but it sufficed. Now they face a very different type of team in Arkansas State.
Leading the way for St. Mary’s is their front row. Jordan Bouey, Matt Crawford, Nick Wallace, and Andrew Cook have worked as a front three that dominates the scrum – no one has been able to stop them when they need a shove – and plays superbly at the breakdown. Wallace started the season at lock, but he’s been a prop most of his rugby life. Eventually Cook was moved to flanker to take advantage of his incredible work rate, and Crawford settled in as hooker.
But Bouey’s red card last weekend likely rules him out of this weekend, and thus expect to see cook back at hooker (we’d say something cute like “back in the #2 jersey” except Cook has kept the #2 on his back even when he flanks).
Crawford is possibly the best player on the Gaels. He is athletic, smart, tough, and not only gets the prop’s job done, he’s like a No. 8 half the time, too.
Cook doesn’t look like a dominant player, but he has the heart of a champion rugby player. He could be the MVP of the Pacific conference.
During the season, St. Mary’s lost scrumhalf Chad Clark to academics, and also Jake Holguin to the same issue. Starting flyhalf Max Heath broke his collarbone. No. 8 Joe Brophy tor his PCL. Bubba Jones broke his jaw. They started the season with Garrett Brewer and Lloyd Evans out injured.
Still they won, and often won big. Augie Heath stepped in at flyhalf for his brother. Jimmy Wallace ended up at scrumhalf. Kingsley McGowan took on the fullback responsibilities, and youngsters Cooper Maloney and Anthony Suzio stepped in at wing.
They all performed well, while the veterans, such as flanker Rob Carlson (overshadowed but not underappreciated) and center Tim Maupin (still the key line-breaker on the team) helped hold things together.
It still seemed like a team stitched together, but they play extremely well together. They are athletic. They make tackles. They know how to key on an opponent and shut him down. The front row, together with unlikely enforcer Kelly Harris and intriguing talent Hulu Moungaloa (sounds like a volcano you can only see on webstream) at second row, do not take a backward step from anyone.
It is a team that is greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone has embraced a role, and then added something to his arsenal. The tight five forwards can run an pass. The scrawny backs can hit.
Now, add to that, the return of Brophy at No. 8, the return of Max Heath to #10, and the return of Brewer as a wing, and the return of Jones as a fullback, or something else, and you’ve got a team that is really dangerous.
St. Mary’s will attempt to exert physical and psychological dominance in the scrum. They will throw in wrinkles (having a wing play defensive scrumhalf on scrums, for example). They are not afraid to have a prop in the backline, and to use him. They can kick. They love a fast game.
Where they go wrong is turnovers. Against BYU, they competed well, but turnovers turned into tries far too many times. If the Gaels decide that not only do they need to win, they need to win in a pop-the-cork style, they might create problems for themselves.
Thing is, they’ve been in holes before.