MORAGA, Calif. – It’s been three years since the Running Eagles have brought a D1A National Championship trophy back to the Life University campus in Marietta, Ga., and Scott Lawrence’s 2016 team overcame rival Saint Mary’s, 24-20, at Saint Mary’s Stadium Saturday, to retain the No. 1 title in college rugby’s top division.
Center Harley Davidson scored a crucial try early in the second half to give Life its first lead of the match, and played the full 80 in a Most Valuable Player performance.
“Harley’s captain and leads from the front with tremendous grit,” the head coach said of his sophomore from Boise, Idaho. “Sixty minutes into the game, that break from him – that was just sheer will. Those are the kind of men that you want in your program, and those are the guys we’ve got.”
It was a team performance that was required from the Running Eagles, with the Gaels holding advantage in the stands and on the scoreboard after just six minutes. Despite Life starting the match with the ball in attacking territory, a penalty against Lawrence’s charges allowed Saint Mary’s outside center Dylan Audsley to open the scoring with a penalty goal.
Audsley saw space near the corner of the try zone five minutes later as the Gaels held onto possession, and sent a chip kick for wing Harley Wheeler to catch. The referee awarded a scrum, and successive scrums in the ensuing minutes kept the Gaels in the attacking half of the pitch, and it was only a matter of time until it turned into the match’s first try. Wing Tommy Wallace provided the honors for Tim O’Brien’s side, receiving a pass out wide and taking a hit as he crossed the line for an 8-0 lead.
Life missed an opportunity to get on the scoreboard a couple minutes later when fly half Cody Melphy’s penalty goal attempt hit one of the uprights, and the Running Eagles escaped conceding more points when Aaron Matthews’ offload on the break was sent forward. Audsley did give his team extra breathing room in the 23rd minute when his team won a lineout and he received a pass in front of a defensive gap. He centered the 25-meter try and converted it for a 15-0 lead.
Davidson ran a switch in the 26th minute for a big run into the attacking half before Life won a penalty, which was turned into three points by Melphy from the tee. The Running Eagles kept Saint Mary’s scoreless for the remainder of the half, and Melphy’s touch-line penalty goal attempt on the final play of the half just missed wide for the 15-3 score at the break.
The intensity only ramped up in the second half with the National Championship and bragging rights on the line. Life full back Mitchell Wilson returned a clearance kick an important 20 meters past midfield for field position, and a lengthy attack saw the Running Eagles score their first try of the match. Maciu Koroi dove for the line to be stopped short, but scrum half Marcus Walsh quickly finished the attack with a dot-down for a 15-10 score.
From the next restart, Davidson chased a high kick from his teammate. The Saint Mary’s full back was unable to catch it on the slide, and it popped up to Davidson in stride. The center was not to be caught 50 meters from the line, giving his side its second try in as many minutes and a 17-15 lead over the home team.
Saint Mary’s nearly scored a minute afterwards, reaching the corner from the restart before the ruck was pushed into touch. The lineout was overthrown by Zachary Warren, however, and Gaels No. 8 Vili Helu was all alone to take it over the try line, restoring his team’s lead at 20-17.
The scoring stopped for 15 minutes, but Life used a few minutes to put together a 17-phase scoring attack from a midfield lineout to take its final lead. Alex Maughan put the ball down in-goal and Melphy converted for the 24-20 score.
The game did not end there for Lawrence’s team, with Life forced to withstand a heavy onslaught from Saint Mary’s. The Gaels killed their own efforts with turnovers in the final minutes, and the referee’s whistle was blown for the last time on a dropped pass at the 22.
The Running Eagles were given the respect they deserved from the Moraga crowd during the trophy ceremony, and were happy with another competitive match to end the 15s season. Lawrence’s squad will take the trophy home to Marietta, but will get back to work for the sevens season next week.
“We love it here,” Lawrence said of Saint Mary’s College. “Saint Mary’s supports their team 100 percent and we like rugby fans. We’re rugby-first. It doesn’t seem hostile to us; they’re supporting their team. We love that, we love the environment, we love the energy that comes from it. It lifts us just as it does them.
“It’s great to win the game, but it’s all about graduating players and developing young men. We’ll continue to do that and the players know that. They’ll trust the process. It’s good to get that win but they know it starts again tomorrow morning.”