Saint Mary’s hosts BYU in Top 5 non-conference clash

D1A Rugby: Saint Mary’s hosts BYU in Top 5 non-conference clash
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater
After rolling through their respective competitions early in the year, #3 Saint Mary’s and #4 BYU are set to rumble in the first of two 2017 matchups Saturday afternoon, which will be streamed live, beginning at 1 PM PT.

And while these two teams meet again four weeks from now, revenge is still on the menu in Saturday’s game nonetheless. The Gaels and Cougars have met twice a season the past few years, splitting contests in 2014. Since then BYU has come out victorious in each meeting; their most recent outing resulted in a lopsided 60-15 victory nearly a year ago, but only once in the last four meetings was a game decided by nine points or less.

BYU has demonstrated a smooth transition in to D1A thus far on top of going 6-0 against D1A opponents the previous year. Not surprising by the two-time USA Rugby National Champions, and while the Gaels boast two National Championships of their own, it helps sets the stage for an anticipated demonstration of skill.

“Saint Mary’s are always a formidable opponent; we have a lot of respect for their program starting with their coaches through to their players,” BYU head coach David Smyth commented. “I think we share a philosophy of playing an entertaining style of rugby by putting the ball into space, playing with width, working to get all fifteen players involved in the game.”

Saint Mary’s senior 8-Man Kevin O’Connor echoed similar comments towards the Cougars.

“BYU, like ourselves, have good athletes who are let to roam free and play based on instinct,” he said. “Let the athletes be athletes.”

And much like an athlete’s common mentality, the Gaels captain added that last year’s championship loss at home has only fueled the team to rise higher in 2017. So far so good as May ticks ever closer.

“Losing the championship last season was probably the best thing to happen to us, especially the returners,” O’Connor chimed. “It brought back a sense of humility, which at times I think we lost track of last year. It’s not easy losing a game like that, needless to say in front of your home crowd, as it separates those who choose to go down with the ship versus those on May 8th who are already looking ahead to see what they themselves can do better the following season.” 

With momentum riding on both sides, it is a statement game that can set the tone the rest of the year, let alone round two in March between this pair of rivals.

Wing Kevin Schofield tallied a hat trick against Saint Mary’s in that significant margin of victory last March, a game when the Gaels did not get on the board until the 45th minute. A month prior, the two squads fought tooth and nail until the final whistle of a 30-29 bout, when despite scoring early, Saint Mary’s was held defensively by BYU until a late surge that ultimately proved to be just short of a comeback. Center Aaron Matthews sparked the late rally for the Gaels, as well as Dylan Audsley, but BYU’s Calvin Whiting would make what would turn out to be a critical penalty kick to put his team up for good.

Defense proved to be the Cougars’ greatest asset on the field in that game, and as coach Smyth mentioned, “Defense will be key to Saturday’s result, the team that makes the fewest mistakes defensively will more than likely win. It’s a big test for us…to play a team like Saint Mary’s who bring so much high tempo pressure at you, certainly presents a massive challenge.”

Like talking in a mirror, O’Connor shared similar confident predictions “Our set piece as well as our defense will determine how successful we are on the day.”

Outside of the two teams’ historical records, Saint Mary’s has been relatively flawless in action. In fact, the Gaels have given up 15 points in their past three games combined, with 216 offensive points to boot. They are coming off a 55-0 performance against #15 Air Force, and now aim to remain perfect on the year with a home win against a longtime thorn in their side. The team’s offense has been highlighted by senior flanker Alec Barton since the New Year, scoring six tries in January.

BYU meanwhile has had similar fortune this year. In two games thus far the Cougars have outscored opponents 141-17. In their most recent game versus #19 San Diego State, Schofield recorded three tries in the win, with six total BYU players scoring in that match.