LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Life University and Saint Mary’s College will contend for the May 6 D1A Rugby National Championship for the fifth year in a row, but anyone who has seen the two college rugby powerhouses go head to head isn’t complaining about the repeat matchups. The four previous championship outings between the two schools have provided terrific examples of what elite-level college rugby looks like, and fans in attendance at Saint Mary’s Stadium or watching live on CBS Sports Network are likely to be treated to another 80 minute classic Saturday.
The four previous D1A Rugby National Championship games have been extremely evenly played matches. Excluding the 2014 Final in which Saint Mary’s 21-6 win wasn’t quite indicative of how close the game was, the other three title bouts between the two heavyweights have been separated by an average of less than five points per contest.
Life secured its second National Champions last May after Saint Mary’s raised the trophy in 2014 and 2015. A fired-up Running Eagles team let the emotions of the National Championship game keep them from playing their style in the early stages while the Gaels jumped out to 15-3 lead at halftime. A much more composed Life team rebounded in the second half to defeat Saint Mary’s, 24-20.
“It’ll be important to keep a cool head,” said last year’s D1A National Championship MVP, Harley Davidson. “Last year we started off a little erratic and excited, and made a lot of mistakes before we were able to come together, calm down and collect ourselves at halftime.”
Saint Mary’s captain Kevin O’Connor echoed Davidson’s remarks, suggesting the difference between being a National Champion or the runner-up will come down to being poised.
“There’s going to be ups and downs, but it will be important to weather the storm and recover,” the All-American flanker said. “In a game like this you’re going to have to take some punches, and it’s about your ability to regroup, take a breath and go from there. It’s all about composure.”
The atmosphere of a National Championship match is another story altogether, but both two-time D1A Rugby champs have been quite composed so far this season. Life is in the midst of another undefeated season, included a perfect record in the Mid-South Conference, beating its league rivals by an average of 35 points per outing.
Saint Mary’s, meanwhile, also went undefeated during conference play, smashing its California opposition by an average of 80 points per win. The two finalists share one common opponent in BYU. The third-ranked Cougars handed Saint Mary’s its lone loss in Provo, Utah, but when the Gaels gave BYU its best shot at Saint Mary’s Stadium, it was the Gaels that prevailed.
When Life played the Cougars in last week’s Semifinals, the Running Eagles matched BYU’s physicality on their way to a 36-26 win.
“We know how big the game was, so getting that win over BYU was fantastic,” said senior Zander Van Schalkwyk. “It’s definitely raised the guys’ spirits and it’s getting us prepared for this weekend.”
Life might be 80 minutes away from matching last year’s undefeated mark, but the Running Eagles feel this year’s team is stronger than last year’s. For one, they are more experienced, but more importantly, a new group of players have made immediate impacts this season.
“The new guys have a lot of skill and are able to move the ball and adapted really fast which helped us a lot,” Van Schalkwyk added. “We’re just more experienced now. Two years ago we were a very young team, so those players have had a chance to grow up and the new players are very skilled.”
There’s a load of talent in Life’s forwards, especially Eagle front rower Alex Maughan and emerging star and eight man Maciu Koroi. But the team’s back line is very familiar with one another, and the symmetry from their countless reps together is apparent.
Davidson, who is back in the centers after spending last year on the flank, believes the backs’ ability to get behind the defense is just as much a product of their time together away from the field as the hours spent between the white lines.
“We’re all really good friends and we hang out a lot away from the pitch, as well. So, when we step on the field we know that they are going to have your back no matter what.”
Many of Saint Mary’s most influential players have played together for four, and in some cases five seasons. O’Connor and fellow All-Americans Dylan Audsley and Holden Yungert are fifth-year seniors, and were joined by seven other fourth-year seniors in the team’s starting lineup for the April 29 Semifinal victory over Arizona.
Although the Gaels beat the Wildcats, 43-7, it wasn’t the kind of performance the 10 seniors in the first XV were proud of.
“It was one of those games you won, but you felt like you lost,” O’Connor explained. “The way the turnover and penalty count went there was no flow to our style of play. It’s definitely one of those things we’re trying to address, but at the same time credit Arizona for disrupting our ball and taking us out of our game plan.”
After an honest review of the 80 minutes against Arizona, Saint Mary’s has thrown out the film and is doing everything it can this week to be the best team it can possibly be on Saturday.
“The beauty of the playoffs is if you win, you live to play another week and hopefully correct the mistakes from the previous game with a great week of practice,” O’Connor said.
As noted previously, when these two teams play each other the games are very closely contested. The Gaels feel like a few minor details let them down last year, and won’t be surprised if Saturday’s result once again comes down to a minor mistake or poor decision.
“It’s such a fine margin in every game when we play them,” Audsley pointed out. “There are instances that if we didn’t turn it over or decided to go for points – very important decisions that might not matter in another game but will definitely matter in this game.”
The hard-hitting 80 minutes of action between Life University and Saint Mary’s begins Saturday, May 6, at 4 p.m. PT from Saint Mary’s Stadium in Moraga, Calif. The 2017 D1A Rugby National Championship game will be aired live on both CBS Sports Network, as well as The Rugby Channel.