MORAGA, Calif. – In a fifth consecutive D1A Rugby National Championship meeting between the two schools, Saint Mary’s College defended Saint Mary’s Stadium Saturday in a 30-24 defeat of Life University.
The Gaels’ third D1A title breaks the deadlock between them and the Running Eagles of Marietta, Ga., with All-American full back Dylan Audsley accounting for 25 of his side’s points in the 2017 Final. Audsley is one of a number of seniors in the squad that have been to each of the past four or five Finals, including flanker Alec Barton.
“We work all year for this, running through the hills early through the season and building relationships,” Barton said following the win. “We talk about staying composed through the game and the only way we can stay composed is by trusting in each other and working off of those relationships.
“This is the last time this group is going to play together and I’m extremely grateful for all these guys and saying I got to play with them.”
The Final did not start in the best way for the Gaels, who lamented their somewhat-lackadaisical play in a Semifinal defeat of University of Arizona leading into Saturday’s title-decider. Though Sam Cowley’s second-minute penalty kick attempt came back off of the upright in the middle of the field, Life was able to punish Saint Mary’s penalty troubles through a Mike Islava dive at the posts.
Captain Kevin O’Connor blocked a kick in the eighth minute as the Gaels looked to counter quickly, and the pressure forced Life offside for Audsley’s first penalty kick, 7-3. He slotted his second three minutes later from a difficult angle next to the touch line, 7-6, before a booming kick in open play from behind his own 22 hamstrung the Life defense. The ball bounced into touch for a Saint Mary’s lineout, and scrum half Holden Yungert fed Audsley in front of the posts. The full back read the defender’s jump from the gain line and sidestepped his opposite number to put the Gaels in front, 13-7.
The kicking game suited Saint Mary’s in the first half, with a 22nd-minute boomer bringing poor decision-making out of the Running Eagles. While hooker Brian Muntanga returned Chris McDonnell’s kick well, his choice to offload in contact resulted in a turnover before fly half Duncan van Schalkwyk was sent to the bin for a cynical foul in the breakdown trying to defend the counter.
Audsley added three more points to his tally from the yellow-card infraction, but Saint Mary’s conceded while holding a player-advantage when Muntanga crashed the ball through three defenders at the try line in the 26th minute. Cowley converted the try for a 16-14 score, and gave Life a late, 17-16, lead in the half with a 38th-minute penalty kick.
Life came out of the break with renewed vigor, chasing down kicks left and right and keeping steady play in Saint Mary’s half. The Gaels knocked the ball on after stealing it in their defensive end in the 46th minute, and the Running Eagles went forward from the set piece for Cody Melphy to receive the try-scoring pass with pace beside the posts. The celebrations at 24-16 were cut short as Saint Mary’s returned the favor with a break from the restart, however. Vili Helu’s run took him into contact near the Life 22, where one penalty and a successive whistle forced match official Derek Summers’ hand in awarding a yellow card to Running Eagles captain Harley Davidson. Audsley kicked the ball through the uprights from the spot of the foul to bring his side’s deficit to 24-19.
The break was not Helu’s only barnstorming run, as the No. 8 had two more within the next 10 minutes. The third was a footrace along the touch line, where Life won a lineout. It was not thrown straight, however, and the Running Eagles gave Saint Mary’s a playing advantage with an infraction in the ensuing lineout’s maul. Saint Mary’s was kept out of the try zone with the advantage before it came back to the call, where Audsley lined up the tee for a 24-22 ball game.
Saint Mary’s had its own misthrow in a lineout near the same position in the 64th minute, but won the ball back immediately with a strong scrum. The penalty against the Running Eagles set up Audsley’s sixth penalty kick and a 25-24 lead to the home side.
While the Gaels rued the loss of Helu to injury moments later, they had reason to cheer following a midfield scrum five minutes from time. O’Connor wheeled away from the set piece with acres to run and held his offload 15 meters out until the sweeper committed, freeing the lane for Yungert – later named the Final’s Most Valuable Player – to dive in-goal.
The boisterous crowd at Saint Mary’s Stadium powered the Gaels through the final minutes despite a last-ditch effort by Audsley to keep the Final going, keeping the final score at 30-24.
The all-time D1A series between the California Conference and Mid-South Conference champions – and No. 1- and No. 2-ranked programs in the country, respectively – now stands at 3-2 in favor of the Gaels, who lost to the Running Eagles in the same fixture in the same location a year ago.
“It’s a great victory because Life is an amazing opponent,” Barton said. “It’s fun to play them every year.
“You look back on moments like this and you learn to love every second of it. You can’t get these moments back.”