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“One more win and you’re in.” That was on the San Diego Legion and the Austin Elite’s minds when the teams clashed on Sunday night at Torero Stadium in San Diego, Calif. With a bid to the Major League Rugby playoffs at stake, the Legion capitalized on Austin’s turnovers and penalties to defend their home field for a 31-17 victory and entrance to the postseason.
The San Diego win places the Legion in third behind Glendale and Seattle with one weekend left to play in the regular season. Austin has not been eliminated from playoff contention and will wait for the result of Saturday's match between Utah and Houston. If Utah wins, the Warriors are in, but if they fall and don’t record a bonus point, Austin advances.
“We are very pleased,” San Diego head coach Rob Hoadley said. “It was our goal at the start of the season and we are very happy to do it with a game to spare in front of the home crowd.
“The gameplan was to apply pressure and be very ruthless in our contact work once when got into the right areas of the field. By doing that, Austin, when they came under pressure, tended to give penalties away which gave us great launch platforms. Conversely, we have to work on our penalties conceded. We still gave away far too many which gave them field position.”
With many players on Eagles duty, it was time for everyone to come together. “It’s tough losing the number of players and quality we did to the Eagles,” Man of the Match and scrumhalf Nick Boyer stated. “They went out there and did an amazing job for American rugby yesterday against Scotland. The boys wanted to put the team in a better place going forward when they get back.
“It’s a big credit to all the guys behind the scenes getting the work in and haven’t been starting when the Eagles were here but now are in the driver’s seat. They are the ones who stepped up and fought for each other today. Our defense showed that and that’s what got us over the hump.”
Hoadley echoed the sentiment saying, “Honestly, since we lost to Austin three weeks ago, we’ve lost about ten players to the Eagles and injuries. It has been a collective effort and it’s been the young lads like Alec Barton who made his debut start today. Aaron Mitchell, Gil Covey, Drew Gaffney, and Barton epitomized the work rate that we’ve put in the last few weeks.”
After the teams exchanged penalty kicks to begin the game, the Legion made its presence known when the forwards pounded the line and Boyer got low at the ruck for the game’s first try. San Diego flyhalf Tadhg Leader made the conversion and tacked on his second penalty to extend the lead to 13-3 after 24 minutes of play.
Soon after, San Diego was yellow carded for repeated infringements, but Austin was unable to put any points on the board. Once back to full strength, Pat Blair took a driving maul into the endzone for the 18-3 Legion advantage at the half.
The Elite had the opportunity to cut into the lead at the beginning of the second half, but the penalty strike was off target. A couple of minutes later, Austin’s penalty trouble amounted to a yellow card and Leader banged in his third penalty. Down a man, Austin didn’t rest and attacked and after series of breaks, Pita Naruma found paydirt for a five-pointer. Timothée Guillimin added the conversion to trail 21-10 with 30 minutes left.
Following a held ball from San Diego, Austin couldn’t stop conceding penalties and the Legion took advantage once again with Leader’s boot. With limited time left for a comeback, the Elite was in full desperation mode in the final ten minutes. The focus worked in the 72nd minute when Sani Taylor took an offload from Lou Stanfill to reduce the lead to seven points. Austin continued to press, but San Diego hammered in the final nail for victory with a Ryan Matyas try in the 78th minute.
In describing his players’ performance against the Legion, Austin CEO Thierry Daupin said. “In the first half, we didn’t play really well. We were unable to keep the ball and tried to make it too complicated. We tried to do the extra pass or the extra things we shouldn’t do. Every time we did that even when we had momentum, we gave the ball away... We tried to come back, but it was just too late.”
Austin will closely watch next week’s Houston at Utah match hoping to Sabercats’ win. “If Utah gets beat by Houston, we are still mathematically in,” Daupin added. “We are going to train like we are going to the playoffs this week and put everything we can in the right direction. We need to be ready for any type of situation.”
For San Diego, the Legion has one more game to ready itself for postseason play when they host Glendale next week. San Diego can wrap up the #3 seed with a win but will have its hands full against the undefeated Raptors.
“We are going to work on the detail in our structures and defensively, it will be a big test for us,” Hoadley said. “To win championships, you need to have the best defense in the competition. For us, our defensive work next week will be huge. In particular, working around the contact area and breakdown, stopping the Glendale offloads, and keeping width because Glendale likes to play a wide game with threats across the field so that will be a big focus for us.”
“[Glendale] is the litmus test of this league, the measuring stick that we have to prove ourselves,” Boyer concluded. “Against Glendale, I think the focus will be on if we can control the breakdown making sure we are getting good, quick, clean ball and then decision-making. Myself and the #10 need to be more aware of what kind of ball we are getting and how we can play in the opposition’s half putting the pressure on them. Securing the breakdown, working hard on defense, putting pressure on them in attack and playing in the right areas of the field will be the main points against the Raptors.”