College meets club when Gaels host Golden Gate

D1A Rugby: College meets club when Gaels host Golden Gate
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater

BOULDER, Colo. – One of the very best college programs in the country will clash with one of the top club sides in the nation when Saint Mary’s hosts San Francisco Golden Gate Jan. 9.

This elite-level contest between college and club has become an annual fixture, with the Gaels jumping all over Golden Gate, 60-20, in 2014 before the San Francisco side returned the favor last January with a 48-17 defeat of the Gaels. Even with Bay Area bragging rights on the line, Saint Mary’s won’t go as far as saying Saturday’s game is part of an intense rivalry.

“I think there is a mutual respect between our clubs,” explained senior lock Michael Tilson. “However, once the game starts, it’s just another day at the office. I know our guys will set the tone early.”

November matches against San Francisco State and UC Santa Cruz hardly tested the Gaels. Most recently, Saint Mary’s hammered Santa Rosa Rugby Club by 60 points, making Saturday’s meeting with Golden Gate the first time the Gaels will be under duress this season. San Francisco will no doubt challenge Saint Mary’s entire lineup for 80 minutes, but the game will be a unique challenge for new captain Kevin O’Connor.

The graduation of All-Americans Kingsley McGowan, Mike O’Neil, and Ryan Pratt will sting, but one can’t underestimate the departure of full back Cooper Maloney, who captained the Gaels the past two seasons – each equating to a D1A National Championship title. O’Connor, a senior loose forward who has been an impact player on each of Saint Mary’s Championship teams, appears ready to take over the captaincy.

“On game day we know we can rely on him to make the right tactical decisions, and keep everyone level-headed and focused,” Tilson had to say of O’Connor.

Also making strides in handling increased roles are front-rowers Peter Waldren and Ethan Waller. The duo of sophomores has shown the skill and physicality to, at least partially, fill the boots of O’Neil and Pratt.

Golden Gate hasn’t announced any splash signings of new players ahead of its season, but the Gaels will have to deal with a team that has a unique combination of skill and size, and includes established club members Neill Barrett, Brendan Daly, Mile Pulu, Tom Rooke, and Volney Rouse. These players are just a sample of the heightened physicality that Golden Gate brings to the pitch, which is exactly the style of play Saint Mary’s hopes to match ahead of spring games against equally stout sides such as BYU and Cal.

“Playing physical teams is critical to our development as a team and as individual rugby players,” said Tilson. “The way we play relies on domination at the tackle and breakdown area, and we try to improve those aspects of play every day at practice.”

Golden Gate will leave the friendly confines of Treasure Island behind Saturday, and cross the Bay Bridge to play at the Gaels’ Saint Mary’s Stadium in Moraga, Calif. The highly-anticipated contest between college and club will be streamed live on GaelVision with a kick off time of 2:30 p.m. PT.