Life Win 2019 D1A National Championship in A Thriller

D1A Rugby: Life Win 2019 D1A National Championship in A Thriller
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater

Life University’s Running Eagles have repeated as D1A National Champions, after beating the California Golden Bears, 29-26. The Running Eagles held on in a back and forth affair with four lead changes to secure their second championship in as many years and third in four. Scrum half Ryan Rees was named the championship game’s Most Valuable Player.

“A team that has been resilient all year continued to be resilient today,” said Colton Cariaga, Life’s coach. “We knew we were going to be up against it because Cal is just as resilient, but our guys saved their most resilient performance for today.”

After meeting in the National Championship last year, Cal and Life were both looking forward to the rematch and it didn’t take long for the enthusiasm to show. From the opening kickoff the game was played at a blistering rate with both scrum halves, Ryan Rees for Life and Henry Poon dipping, dodging and diving their way around the ruck. Eventually Rees was able to split Cal’s defensive line, and through various sets of hands the ball found its way to Justin Johnson. The openside flanker was brought down just short of the line, but a little kick through from Life’s captain Mitch Wilson, saw the ball spill over the line and Duncan Van Schalkwyk wasted no time diving on it and giving the game its first points.

Trailing 5-0, Cal were determined not to let the game get away from them, they continued to press the Life defensive line and were consistently rewarded with line breaks and penalties. However, Life’s defense bent but did not break, and the Running Eagles held strong. Life were dealt a blow when they were given a yellow card for repeated infringements. It didn’t take long for Cal to take full use of the player advantage and after sustained phase play, Damon Wiley had the Golden Bears in the lead, 7-5.

Life showed their resiliency, a trait they demonstrated for the whole season, and marched right back down the field and scored courtesy of a lovely cut out ball that landed in the hands of Julian Roberts. Life retook the lead, 10-7. There was some enterprising play from both sides, but no more scoring before the half’s conclusion.

Similarly to the first half, the second got underway with a bang. Life who had established a dominant rolling maul, in the opening stanza, used it to secure a penalty try early on; pushing their lead out to 10. It wasn’t long before the maul, once again, put points on the board for Life. This time it was hooker, Brian Muntanga dove over the line and extended the lead out to 15.

However, Cal was not going away any time soon. Nic Mirhashem, their captain, provided leadership. After some crushing tackles off the restart Cal earned a scrum and a subsequent penalty. After, again, sustaining phase play Mirhashem burst through the line and was over. Bringing Cal back within two scores and swinging momentum in their favor. Cal now trailed, 22-14.

Penalties continued to hurt Life and they lost a player for the second time in the game. Mirhashem again providing a spark and leapt on a loose lineout that spilled into the in goal and Cal now found themselves down one point, 22-21, and with Life looking for answers.

Mistakes continued to compound for Life, and off the ensuing kickoff the ball ran dead leading to a midfield scrum. Some electrifying running from Sam Cusano, saw the ball down on Life’s line shortly after. From there Damon Wiley, who proved to be unstoppable all game long, got his second try; and Cal, had the lead, 26-22.

With barely 10 minutes remaining Cal was in the driver’s seat. However, Life’s trademark resiliency and strength in the maul, once again, reared its head. This time the ball was taken down and with a couple of phases swung wide to Conner Mooneyham on the wing and Life retook the lead, by one point. With the ball on the sideline and a conversion needed to bring the lead out to a penalty, captain Mitch Wilson slotted the clutch kick. Only five minutes remained and Life had the lead, 29-26.

Cal wasted no time pinning the Running Eagles into their own half and after some brilliant attacking and defending were awarded a penalty. Electing for the shot at goal to try and bring the game to a draw, the kick went wide. Life now, with only seconds remaining, had a 22 meter restart which pinned Cal back in their own half. Several phases later the ball was knocked on and the full time whistle was blown. Life declared the 2019 D1A National Champions.

After the match Rees credited his teammates for sticking to what had got them this far. “we center out play around an acronym, AHA,” explained Reese. “which stands for Attitude, hustle and aggression, credit to the boys for embodying that today.”