LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The two best teams from the California Conference will meet Saturday, April 22 at Saint Mary’s Stadium when the No. 1-ranked Gaels take on No. 9 San Diego State.
The Aztecs and Gaels first met over the first weekend of March for their annual California Conference fixture. Saint Mary’s won by 52 points, but San Diego State showed much better than the rest of its conference did against the two-time National Champions. The Gaels won their other five California matches by an average of over 86 points per contest.
Either way you chalk it up, San Diego State has a lot of ground to make-up from March if it wants to upset Saint Mary’s. However, the Aztecs have shown very well since its lone conference defeat in Moraga, Calif. They completed their California schedule with wins over Santa Clara and Cal Poly by a combined 91 points, as well as a nonconference win over No. 10 Army.
Most recently, San Diego State scored six tries in route to an opening round playoff victory against Utah. The string of victories, and week spent touring the rugby-crazed country of Georgia, have the Aztecs playing much better rugby than they did the first time they lined up against Saint Mary’s.
“I know our team has evolved since the last time we played Saint Mary’s, but so have the Gaels,” noted San Diego State Head Coach Alex Lichtig. “As opposed to us believing that we have grown by leaps and bounds, we’re more focused on turning in our best performance.”
While the trip to Georgia was a groundbreaking visit for the San Diego State program, the Gaels have been using their spring break to play rugby abroad for decades. This year the guys brought their boots to Scotland where they faced Trinity College’s B-side, an in form senior club and Glasgow Warriors’ Academy.
“Physically it was a pretty rough trip in that we played three games against pretty good opposition in five days,” said Saint Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien.
Still, the Gaels returned to the states with no serious injuries and enjoyed a once in a lifetime experience.
“The trip offered everything we couldn’t wanted for a young group of guys and more,” O’Brien added. “I’ve been on a lot of trips and from my standpoint it was really special.”
The Gaels got home Easter Sunday – one day after San Diego State beat the Utes. So, the teams have had relatively the same amount of time to prepare for one another. Saint Mary’s has shortened training sessions a little bit and cut down on contact to allow weary bodies to heal, while the Aztecs, who already have a comprehensive understanding of what their quarterfinal opponent is all about, have been trying to keep things loose.
“There’s nothing like playing a highly contested game of ‘Kicking Tennis’ between the backs and forwards to close out a Monday session,” Lichtig said lightheartedly.
Spirits are high in the San Diego State camp, but the squad still understands just how tough of a task it will be on Saturday.
“Their personnel are all rugby players first and position players second. Their speed and physicality in the tackle area rival some of the best around, and their ability to capitalize on mistakes in loose play make them effective scorers on turnover ball,” Lichtig had to say of the Gaels.
The Saint Mary’s coaching staff doesn’t seemed surprised by the Aztecs’ rise to the top-half of the Canterbury D1A Rugby Top 20. They’ve seen first hand the improvements San Diego State has made over the years since Lichtig took the reins three seasons ago.
“They are the team with the best shape that I’ve seen all year,” complimented O’Brien. “They have an understanding of what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. Their coaches have done a great job and they’ll have long durations of possession, so we’ll need to execute to stay in the game.”
The winner of this California Conference rematch will advance to the D1A Rugby Semifinals. Awaiting them will be the team that prevails from an April 22 Quarterfinal between Arizona and Baylor.