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To begin the 2017 season, #20 San Diego State and #21 Cal Poly clashed in San Diego, Calif. on Saturday with the Aztecs edging the Mustangs, 13-8. Both looked to shake off the winter rust as execution was lacking at times for each club. With such a low scoring affair, defense was paramount and scoring was at a premium. Ultimately, San Diego State won the game behind tries from Ari Flink and Jacob Zinda and a penalty from Harrison Barkham.
“The deciding factor of the match was our performance on defense,” Aztecs head coach Alex Lichtig said. “We were happy with our defensive structure and physicality, despite conceding quite a few penalties at the breakdown... It was a closely contested match and we always enjoy playing Cal Poly. We narrowly got the result, but we know that won't hold much weight when we meet again in April.”
San Diego State was first on the board about three minutes into the game. Starting from a lineout, the ball was spun out to the backs and “after a few solid phases, [inside center] Nick [Lupian] recognized some space behind the defense and poked a grubbed through which Ari [Flink] was able to chase down for the try,” Lichtig described. The conversion was no good, but the Aztecs led, 5-0.
Both teams battled for field position for most of the match and the defenses stepped up to prevent most scoring opportunities. It wasn’t until 30 minutes into the match that Cal Poly got its first chance at points. After a scrum penalty, flyhalf Corey McGrillen connected on a 30-meter kick to cut the advantage to two points. The hard hits and gritty defense continued for the remainder of the half and ended with the Aztecs leading 5-3.
At the start of the second half, play was confined to in between the 22s as neither team could break through. It wasn’t until 15 minutes into the period that San Diego State made strides to score. Under immense pressure, prop Gil Covey put flanker Kevin McGlone through a gap from about 40 meters out. McGlone streaked downfield and offloaded to the supporting Zinda for the try. With the missed conversion, the Aztecs were up 10-3 with 25 minutes to go.
The Mustangs finally picked up momentum ten minutes later with their forwards driving the ball. Starting with a lineout, the pack methodically moved the ball 15 meters with pick and goes and short passes. A battle at the try line ensued and after two stolen scrums at five meters, wing Ivy Adair joined in with the forwards to dive in for the try. McGrillen’s conversion from the sideline to tie was wide and the Aztecs led, 10-8 with six minutes remaining.
While attempting to move the ball out of its zone on the next possession, Cal Poly was penalized for not releasing the ball. The Aztec players immediately pointed for points and Harrison Barkham nailed the kick from 15 meters.
Cal Poly’s offense pressured the Aztec defense in the last minutes, but the Mustangs were unable to penetrate their opponent’s 22. As the referee blew the final whistle, San Diego State picked up its first win of the season, 13-8, over Cal Poly.
Mustangs head coach James Tesoriero spoke with Rugby Today after the match saying, “SDSU defended very strongly and were excellent at the breakdown. We were unable to open their defense up despite having plenty of ball. They beat us badly at the breakdown, challenging most rucks and turning our ball over 12-15 times through the match.”
“It was a tight and intense match, but neither team really performed near their best,” Tesoriero added. “We both turned over the ball too much, which limited attacking continuity... The deciding factors were their dominance at the breakdown and our malfunctioning lineout. Both factors prevented us from maintaining possession, building pressure and scoring points.”
Coach Lichtig highlighted the play of his two props as integral to the victory. “Jake Jorstad played well. He is still developing his attacking play, but his physical presence made a positive impact. Adahir Aguilera had a quiet, but solid performance doing all the small things that make a big impact defensively. His work rate and leadership helped set the tone on defense.”
Both teams will next face a common opponent when #2 Brigham Young University makes a California road trip this week. Cal Poly will host BYU on Thursday night and then BYU will travel south to San Diego State on Saturday. The two clubs will meet again later this season on April 8th to conclude conference play.