By James Nelson
STANFORD, Calif. -- Perhaps it was Saint Mary’s College rugby coach Tim O’Brien who summed up his team’s 21-6 win over Life University best, just minutes after watching his team capture its first national title.
“Well it wasn’t pretty like you want it to be,” O’Brien said. “But it was effective.”
Ugly but effective described perfectly Saint Mary’s hard-fought victory over Life in the USA Rugby Division I-A National Championship at Stanford on Saturday. A defensive battle in which SMC took full advantage of two huge Life mistakes and simply made none of its own, the Gaels defense played flawlessly all night long, stifling a very powerful Running Eagle attack.
Life’s defense was very much up to the challenge itself, holding Saint Mary’s to its lowest point total of the year. It didn’t matter however, as two huge plays in the second half both resulted in tries and gave SMC its first Rugby Championship in the over-100 year old history of the program.
"This rugby national championship victory is the first in Saint Mary's College
history -- a momentous occasion for both the College and our athletics program. We couldn't be more proud of our student-athletes and all they have accomplished this season. This win is a testament to the teamwork of the players and the skilled leadership of our coaches." - SMC President James Donahue
From the opening kick of the first half, it was clear the match would be close throughout. Both teams attempted to pound the ball with forward packs but, either through nerves or simply because of the defensive pressure, play was uncharacteristically sloppy.
Around seven minutes into the match, Life looked to have the first serious chance to put some points on the board but a fantastic stand by Saint Mary’s denied the Eagles. The SMC defense drove Life’s attackers back more than 30 meters just as they look poised to score, eliciting huge cheers from the very pro SMC crowd.
The two teams continued to batter each other, neither one able gain any real type of edge. Penalties galore on both sides stopped several drives and in fact were responsible for all the scoring in the first half. Life went up 3-0 with a penalty kick but the score was quickly tied when Dylan Audsley slotted one of his own for Saint Mary’s. Life would add one more penalty directly before the half and the score stood at 6-3 Life.
However, the second half was when it really got fun for the Gael faithful. Spurred on by adjustments made by the best coaching staff in all of college rugby, the Gael offense looked to have new life.
It didn’t take long for the adjustments to come to fruition as less than five minutes into the half, Saint Mary’s finally broke through on a brilliant run by game MVP Cooper Maloney. Life attempted to kick to touch when the ball fell short, right into the waiting arms of Maloney. The Gael fullback then took off, streaking through the fractured Life line before offloading to Bubba Jones and then getting the ball right back and taking it in for the try. After the unconverted kick, the score stood at 8-6 and momentum was clearly starting to sway in Saint Mary’s favor.
Once again, the Gaels defense took center stage, stifling anything and everything Life threw at them. The game turned for good when, with around 27 minutes left to go, Life’s loose forward committed an egregious penalty. This resulted in a yellow card and not only gave the SMC the penalty kick but also forced Life to play a man down for the next 10 minutes.
The Gaels took full advantage, as Audsley once again slotted the penalty kick to make the score 11-6. Life would simply not go away, as even with the man down the Eagles continuously attacked the Saint Mary’s defense. Over and over again Saint Mary’s came up with the answer when it needed it, winning a scrum inside their own 5-meter line and stifling several Life drives by dragging players into touch.
Finally with six minutes left to go, Audsley booted a fantastic 40-meter kick that made it 14-6 and finally seemed to suck the life out of Life. Saint Mary’s would add one more try when Garrett Brewer unleashed an amazing grubber kick down the sideline before it was picked up by Alec Barton in the try zone for the score. This put the final tally at 21-6 and started a raucous celebration at Steuber Stadium as fans clad in red and blue stormed the field to celebrate with their beloved team.
The win provides a measure of revenge for Saint Mary's, which lost 16-14 to Life in last year's championship. That match was played in a driving rainstorm in Greensboro, N.C. while Saturday's match was played under ideal conditions at Stanford.
Saint Mary's is the only team in the nation with wins over Varsity Cup champion BYU, Varsity Cup runner-up California and a Life squad that entered Saturday's national title match ranked No. 1 in the nation by RugbyMag.com. The Gaels entered the match ranked No. 2.