STANFORD, Calif. – The Gaels completed its final step in its 12-month road to redemption. Under the bright lights of Steuber Rugby Stadium at Stanford University, a year after coming up just short in the D1A Final, Saint Mary’s College defeated Life University, 21-6, to win its first National Championship.
In a game pinning a seemingly-unstopped offensive attack in Saint Mary’s, versus Life’s impenetrable defense, the match was played at a pace which favored the reigning Champions for the first 40 minutes of the D1A Final rematch between the country’s No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams.
In the opening stanza, Life controlled possession, using its powerful forwards to methodically keep the ball in Saint Mary’s half of the field.
Unfortunately for Head Coach Dan Payne’s team, the Running Eagles were limited to only three points via a Joe Cowley penalty in the early stages of a match dominated by Life.
Saint Mary’s would finally find themselves on their front foot, and in position to score its first points. Following a Life penalty, Dylan Audsley slotted a penalty through the uprights to tie the match, 3-3, with just over 10 minutes to play in the first half.
Each side continued to trade blows, Life showing it was athletic enough to run with Saint Mary’s, and the Gaels proving they were up to the challenge of matching Life’s physicality.
Cowley would add his second penalty to close the half, and Saint Mary’s found itself in a place it was unfamiliar with – behind on the scoreboard after forty minutes.
“The difference between this year and last year is our ability to come back from mistakes,” explained Gaels captain Cooper Maloney. “Once we’d have that one hint of losing we’d spiral down a slippery slope. This year we were able to keep our heads, and just turn that around and keep our confidence.”
The explosive backs of Saint Mary’s slowly began to find space in the Life defense, as Bubba Jones, Kingsley McGowan and Maloney sprung themselves through Life’s line of defense. After fielding a box kick, Maloney made a dash deep into Life territory. A couple of phases later, Maloney scooped up a loose ball and dove over the try line for the match’s first try and gave the Gaels an 8-6 lead.
Shortly after Life’s dynamic flanker Hiko Malu was sent off for a repeated infraction, Audsley sent another penalty between the posts to push the Gaels’ lead to five.
Life continued to absorb the breaks Saint Mary’s attack made, preventing the Gaels from making the offloads they needed to get behind the Running Eagles’ defense.
The pressure applied by the Gaels would eventually lead to a third Audsley penalty, and an eight-point advantage.
Down but not out, Life put in a scrum just inside their end of the 50-meter line. The ball would never make it out to the Running Eagles’ backs, and a loose ball was kicked near Life’s try zone by Saint Mary’s AIG All-American flyhalf Garrett Brewer. The Gaels would eventually re-gather the ball, and Alec Barton dove over the try line for a converted try and put the stamp on Saint Mary’s yearlong journey towards claiming the National Championship, which slipped through their grasps last spring.
“Ever since the last Final we’ve been training,” said Maloney, who was named Most Valuable Player of the 2014 D1A Final. “From the first man to the last man, top to bottom, it’s been a team effort.”
Life, who was undefeated heading into the Championship rematch, had an incredible season and played with impeccable skill and valor. But the night and the 2014 National Championship would belong to Saint Mary’s.
“We have tremendous coaches,” said Maloney. “They know how to coach every type of player. There is no single MVP on this team, it’s every player. The coaches and players did so much work to get here.”
The Gaels’ hunger to bring home the school’s first National Championship was obvious last season and still evident when it lost in the Final of the College 7s National Championship to Arkansas State this past November. But now, at least until the Gaels strap on their boots again to begin next season’s campaign, Saint Mary’s can rejoice in knowing they are the best college rugby team in the country.