The Sooners of Oklahoma traveled to South Bend, IN to take on the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame at their new rugby facility, the Stinson Rugby Field. In a hard-fought battle, Oklahoma took the lead early and never relinquished it. The Sooners emerged victorious by a score of 27-17 over an Fighting Irish side that never wavered on the attack, despite never having the lead.
The day began with the dedication of Stinson Rugby Field by Notre Dame President, the Reverend John I. Jenkins. Jenkins said a prayer over and christened the field in preparation for all of it’s future matches. Notre Dame Executive Vice President John Affleck-Graves and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick also spoke at the field dedication. Oklahoma’s Executive Associate A.D. Larry Naifeh – a former OU Rugby and West RU Mustangs coach – attended the dedication with the Sooner rugby team.
Each teams’ game plan was straight-forward and they stuck to it. Notre Dame would use quick hands to move the ball wide and utilize their speed on the outside. Oklahoma would pick and jam for 4-5 phases looking for a penalty, but spin it out if one did not present itself. Notre Dame also kicked for touch as much as possible to use their superior height in the lineout. Oklahoma’s defense was staunch and driving. It netted them many penalties though, 26 to be exact.
The Sooners started off the scoring ten minutes in to the match with a unconverted try from their legacy flanker, Roman Wilson. While most of his teammates spent the summer playing 7s, Wilson represented the U.S.A. by playing rugby at the Maccabiah games in Israel. His representative experience greatly assisted OU on the day.
Five minutes later, the Irish temporarily lost the plot as their passing slowed down and allowed Sooner hooker Karey Storry to intercept a pass in the Notre Dame back line. Storry rumbled for 10 meters but knew he was not getting far by himself. As the Irish fullback braced for impact, Storry fed the ball to his captain, Michael al-Jiboori, who caught it at pace and used the outside space to beat his opposition around the corner. Flyhalf Jake Turner provided the extras and OU had a comfortable, perhaps too comfortable, lead.
After the score, the Sooners’ offense seemed to settle down, but their troubles at the breakdown were just beginning. From an OU penalty for side entry, Notre Dame drove a beautiful kick to touch and capitalized on the ground gained by securing a sloppy throw-in at the lineout. Then, the Fighting Irish unveiled their game plan. Two cut-out passes and a slick offload from a tackle later, Notre Dame notched five points of their own with an unconverted try in the right corner. Twenty minutes remained in the half.
For the next 30 minutes of play, the match raged back and forth. Notre Dame’s attack was relentless, but OU’s defense was no less so. Oklahoma endured a lop-sided penalty count, a yellow card Mike Black for repeated infringement, a seven phase goal-line stand and a couple of five meter scrums to Notre Dame before halftime was whistled.
Ten minutes into the second half, Notre Dame seemed to lose their break-down discipline for a minute and committed three penalties in a row. Even though they had neatly intercepted an OU pass, the Irish lost possession at the next ruck. Then OU stuck fast. The Sooners, who are in the middle of 7s season, used the quick hands from their skills in the short game to get the ball into Kyle Driscoll’s hands for an unconverted try.
Again, the match found it’s routine of back and forth play. Again, Notre Dame threatened the goal line and Oklahoma added to their penalty count. When the referee had enough, he yellow-carded OU’s Wilson for repeated infringements 15 meters from in-goal. The Irish took proper advantage of the Sooners’ momentary lapse of concentration as their scrumhalf quickly tapped through the mark and immediately delivered the ball to his big #8. The Fighting Irish captain knew the drill and carried two OU defenders toward in-goal before he smartly stretched out his arm and dotted down. The try was not converted, but the 17-10 scoreline was the impetus the Irish needed to get back into the game. Unfortunately for them, the try provided OU with a wake-up call.
Oklahoma sluggishly returned to the restart as their captain gave them an earful. This resulted in the referee dinging the Sooners for delay of match and awarding Notre Dame with a penalty at center field. The Irish quick-tapped but knocked on in the ensuing tackle. OU took that possession through two phases before Notre Dame’s flanker was dinged for a blatant side-entry. After the quick-tap, the Sooners drove the ball through an amazing 12 phases of possession that ended with al-Jiboori dotting down to claim a brace of tries for the day. The conversion attempt missed, but OU’s head was back in the game, despite it’s heart being in the sin-bin.
For the next eight minutes, Notre Dame camped out in Oklahoma territory, desperately trying to take advantage of the numbers mismatch. OU’s fitness and defense met them head-on. OU held out until the ref awarded a five meter scrum to the Irish due to a dead ball in an OU maul. After being reminded to check his watch for yellow card time, the referee allowed for Wilson to return. From the scrum, OU was penalized for early release, but they would not allow the Irish forwards in goal. OU’s defense drove the Irish back for four phases before the hosts put the ball in the hands of a stepping wing, who not only weaved his way in goal, but also scored near enough to center for a good conversion. With three minutes left in the match, the score was 22-17.
Oklahoma restarted with a deep kick and forced Notre Dame to work through four phases before committing a knock on. From the wrong-side scrum feed to a left-footed hooker, OU’s big, Argentinian #8, Facunda Gatica, charged ahead to set up the first of four, successive rucks. The ball worked to Gatica from six meters out and he took four hard steps to fall in goal for the final unconverted try of the day. The game would end a few minutes later on an all-too-obvious forward pass by the Irish. Oklahoma had defeated Notre Dame 27-17 in this friendly match.
Photo courtesy of Notre Dame Men’s Rugby Facebook page.