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The first of two marquee matchups between #3 St. Mary’s College of California and #1 Brigham Young University is ready to go this Saturday in Moraga, Calif. The Gaels are hitting it’s stride in the early season while BYU’s year has barely begun because of weather. Both clubs came off spectacular 2015s with BYU winning the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup and St. Mary’s capturing the DIA National Championship. This weekend’s match is the first leg of a home and home with the game in Provo, Utah on March 12th.
In last year’s series, the Cougars won both contests, but only by a combined 13 points. The Gaels held the lead in each match before BYU came back for the victories. The first match at St. Mary’s ended with four point decision at 32-28 and the Cougars won on their home pitch, 35-26.
With a snowy winter effecting playing conditions in the Rocky Mountains, BYU has had limited opportunity to get quality time against competitive teams. The Cougars blew out Utah in an early scrimmage and have run through teams in the Red Rock Tournament and at Dixie State. BYU did schedule Colorado, but the game was cancelled due to snow. The game versus St. Mary’s will be the first significant 80 minutes of play for the Cougars all season.
BYU knows St. Mary’s quite well as the teams play each other fairly regularly. BYU head coach David Smyth said, “St. Mary’s is a fantastic team, they got a lot of good rugby players. They are well-coached, they are an exciting team that will attack from anywhere. Not to be said that they are not good in the foundational aspect of the game and set pieces, but they are known to give it a go and that creates some challenges for us in this part of the season.”
As for his own team, a lot of particulars are still to be sorted out. “We have rotated a number of guys into our games,” Smyth said. “We haven’t really put a top 15 out. We haven’t had the right situations to put their hand up for the season.” BYU returns many excellent players from its Varsity Cup squad. Captains Jared Whippy and Ara Elkington lead an incredible group that features flyhalf Jonny Linehan, scrumhalf Luke Mocke, center Josh Whippy, hooker Alex Vorster, and prop Zane Mendenhall.
“We have some very good rugby players,” Smyth remarked. “We think we can do a lot of the same things St. Mary’s can. It’s just a matter of our progression at this stage of the season. Its early days for us, but were excited and looking forward to it. I think with the boys who we have on the team, we have some experience.”
When asked how important it is to be tested by a team like St. Mary’s, Smyth answered, “Our goal is to get the best teams in the country on our schedule. Whether that’s the start of the year, middle, or end, it doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. We are just interested in progression and getting better. When you play a team like St. Mary’s, it makes you better from the experience.”
The road for the Gaels has been different. Since losing four All-Americans to graduation, which included outside center Kingsley McGowan who is playing for the Eagles, finding depth on the club hasn’t been easy. All-Americans Dino Waldren, Holden Yungert, and Dylan Audsley returned and senior captain Kevin O’Connor leads from the pack. Unfortunately, Vili Helu, Henry Hall, and Nick Schlobohm have been bit by the injury bug.
With wins over Arizona, Arizona State, Lindenwood, and San Diego State, Gaels co-head coach John Everett said that the season has been “a work in progress. Every team has to have its own identity and this team is no different. We have had to replace two front row players from last year, which is never easy. We have to replace Kingsley McGowan who is playing for the Eagles in the backs. It will take time to see if we come together as a team.”
While St. Mary’s is focusing on working together as a team on all aspects of the game, Everett spoke highly of Saturday’s opponent. “[BYU] is a well-coached squad that is big and powerful. If you are not successful on your first up tackles, it will be a very long day for you. No. 1-15, collectively, they are all polished rugby players. Most of them have been playing rugby for a long period of time. They have a great combination of size, power and speed and can strike from anywhere at any time.”
On the prospects against the Cougars, the other side of the head coaching brain trust for the Gaels, Tim O’Brien, said, “We are looking to try and be competitive and not get blown out. Nothing looking at this matchup says we should be competitive. Most programs against BYU, you are just looking to hang on.
“The battle and it will be a battle of attrition on Saturday will determine the winner,” Everett added. “You have to win the one on one fight. Each player has to walk off the field and be able to say I beat my man for us to win. It will be a war to say the least.”
On the significance of the BYU match to the Gaels, Everett responded, “It is a great gauge to see where we are and what we need to do to improve. BYU will expose your weaknesses and exploit them. It isn’t the individual game, but the history that BYU and SMC are building. USA rugby needs to have as many of their top teams playing each other as often as possible for us to get better as a rugby nation. This goes to high school, college, club, and the US teams. The better the competition the better we all will become.”