Life, Saint Mary’s renew rivalry at 2016 D1A National Championship

D1A Rugby: Life, Saint Mary’s renew rivalry at 2016 D1A National Championship
Photo Credit: Travis Prior

MORAGA, Calif. – Life University and Saint Mary’s College have proven to be the top two teams in the D1A Rugby competition for the fourth consecutive season. The programs’ consistently dominant performances will pit the Gaels and Running Eagles against one another at the May 7 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships hosted by Saint Mary’s College.

The Gaels and the Running Eagles have been ranked in the top-two of Canterbury’s D1A Top 20 since the 2015-16 season kicked off, went undefeated on their way to conference championships and have played some their best rugby in Quarterfinal and Semifinal victories the past two weeks. It’s safe two say the teams have earned their right to play for the D1A title.

“Great coaching,” Life Head Coach Scott Lawrence simply put when asked what makes Saint Mary’s so good. “They do the basics very well, run into the ball hard, stay connected in defense and back themselves when there’s an opportunity. They’re fun to watch and a real challenge to prepare for.”

The Gaels generally bring an exciting brand of rugby to the pitch, but they have been especially entertaining to watch during the D1A Playoffs. After beating Air Force 77-17 in the Quarterfinals, Saint Mary’s dropped 81 points in its Semifinal victory over Utah – a far cry from its seven points escape of the Utes back in March.

“We didn’t get frustrated after being behind early and played exceptional when we had players in the sin bin,” forwards coach Johnny Everett said of last week’s win. “When our reserves came in they didn’t skip a beat.”

It was a comprehensive effort from every Gael who played against Utah, but it will suit Saint Mary’s well to receive massive efforts from its leaders in the Championship Final. Kevin O’Connor will captain the side from the backrow and will have as much big game experience as anyone on the pitch Saturday. While Mike McCarthy will marshal the backs from his fly half position, it’s All-American center Dylan Audsley who is the team’s best player and brings an element of calmness to the Gaels’ high-paced attack.

In terms of game breakers, look no further than Vili Helu and Nick Schlobohm. Helu, just the sophomore, is an eight man with the strength and length to fend off defenders at will. Schlobohm is a finisher at full back and nearly impossible to stop when taking the ball at pace.

Life has been equally impressive in its buildup to the D1A National Championship. The Running Eagles beat Davenport in the Quarterfinals and Lindenwood in the Semifinals by a combined 85-7.

“Their coaches are top-notch, the players are fit, organized and in one of the best academy environments in college rugby,” Everett complimented. “They make few mistakes and punish you when you error. It will be a battle for 80 minutes.”

Even with all of the accolades, this is still a Life team that only had six starters from last year’s National Championship Final help beat No. 3 Lindenwood for a third time this season last week. Gone are the likes of All-Americans Jake Anderson and Glen Maricelli, but sophomores Estevan Florez and Alex Maughan have become a formidable pair in the frontrow, and first-year Running Eagle Cody Melphy has been the team’s most consistent player in the backline.

Melphy had been scoring tries in bunches at inside center, but a recent injury to fly half Blane Mcllroy saw Melphy play equally well in the No. 10 jersey against Lindenwood, and handle the kicking duties nicely.

Although Melphy has been spectacular this season, this is the sophomore’s first National Championship appearance, and a player who has previously played in a D1A Final very well could decide the game.

“There has definitely been a sense of urgency and high intensity this week from the guys who were involved in the loss to Saint Mary’s the last two years,” admitted Melphy.

“The boys are very excited for the chance to step on the field and challenge ourselves against Saint Mary’s, who has proven themselves to be a very good team.”

One player who has been in the trenches of the D1A Final is Saint Mary’s two-time All-American Dino Waldren. The prop’s first season with the Gaels ended in defeat to Life in the 2013 D1A Final, but Waldren has played in big roll in the Gaels’ 2014 and 2015 National Championships.

“They are so structured and you know you have to bring your ‘A’ game because you know they’ll bring theirs,” said Waldren of the Running Eagles. “We’ll have our hands full against Life, but it’s going to be a great game.”

Both squads are sure to bring their very best come Saturday, but neither is likely to play their fastest. Rainfall is likely on the campus of Saint Mary’s College on Championship Saturday, and with five Finals to be played May 7, there’s no telling how the pitch will hold up.

The Gaels, however, are content to stick with the running style of play that has gotten them to its fourth Championship Final in as many years – regardless of weather, while Life has plans to make minor adjustments if necessary.

“You always have to account for the conditions,” said Lawrence. “There will be some basic things that won’t change, and others that are just part of a wet weather package.”

The D1A Final returns to Northern California after 2015’s National Championship was held at the Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University – just a short drive from the Life University campus. Saint Mary’s is thrilled with the opportunity to play in front of friends, family and fellow student body, but are far more focused with winning the National Championship than where they contend for it.

“This is the ultimate goal for any athlete – playing for the Championship,” said Everett. “Playing at home just makes it that more exciting.”

The Running Eagles didn’t receive any fortunate bounces playing in its home state in last year’s Final, making the trip to California of little concern.

“Just knowing that everything we have worked for, everything we have sacrificed has paid off – it would mean the world to complete the season by winning the D1A National Championship,” Melphy said.

The 80 minutes to decide the 2016 D1A Rugby National Champion begins 3 p.m. PT at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga. The D1A Final will be the fourth of five matches played at the May 7 USA Rugby College 15s National Championships. All five matches will air free of charge on The Rugby Channel.