KENNESAW, Ga. – Saint Mary’s will no doubt reclaim its place atop the D1A Rugby Top 20 Rankings after a 30-24 defeat of Life in the National Championship match at Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University Saturday.
Dylan Audsley kicked three penalty goals and scored the match’s first try to earn Most Valuable Player honors in the third consecutive Final featuring the Gaels and Running Eagles.
After proving their No.-1 credentials in 2014 with nonconference wins against University of California and Brigham Young University, the Gaels put together another tough schedule for 2015. Trips to Utah and New York for matches against Utah, BYU, Army, and Dartmouth, as well as a trip to Berkeley, tested the reigning National Champion, which faltered in the Rocky Mountains to slip to No. 2 in the middle of the season.
While Saint Mary’s was traveling the country, Life came away from a tough regular season schedule in the Mid-South with D1A Rugby Playoff Semifinalists and top-four-ranked Davenport and Lindenwood undefeated. Even if the Running Eagles’ schedule was not as comprehensive as that of Saint Mary’s, players on the Marietta campus suited up for the University’s American Rugby Premiership side for extra match time.
It all came to a head Saturday in the Final: a battle fit for the country’s top two rugby-playing schools. Last year, the Gaels’ supporters made the 50-mile trip to Stanford University, while the Life supporters had the same opportunity this weekend to cheer on a local team.
The home fans were given reason to cheer not two minutes into the match with fly half Blane McIlroy turning a penalty against the Gaels into three points with a penalty goal.
Both teams drew the whistle of center referee Phil Akroyd early on, forcing the match to be played with set pieces and whistles relatively often. Audsley attempted to level the match in the ninth minute with a penalty goal, but the kick curved away from the goal posts on the north end of the stadium.
Life gave Saint Mary’s a scrum for not throwing the lineout straight in the 14th minute, and the Gaels kicked the ball behind the Running Eagles’ 10 to gain territorial advantage. Within a minute, Saint Mary’s took control of the ball again and used a healthy set of forwards to pound away at the try line. A quick ball out from the breakdown to Audsley in front of the posts allowed the MVP to give the Gaels a 7-3 lead with a try and conversion.
Prop Ryan Pratt was taken into touch following the restart, but the Gaels regained possession due to another Life lineout deemed to be thrown illegally. Fly half Kingsley McGowan threw one pass to the right and rounded the ruck to switch play to the opposite direction, and 2014 MVP Cooper Maloney set up a perfect line to get his teammate’s pass. The Gaels reached Life’s 22 within two phases and drew a penalty. Audsley stepped up to extend the lead to 10-3 with a tough-angled kick.
The Running Eagles could not avoid the unforced errors, and an untimely penalty in the 24th minute stopped an attack with five meters of the Saint Mary’s try line. Life kept the ball in the Gaels’ half until the 29th minute, when Zander Van Schalkwyk broke a tackle from two defenders to dive over the try line and level the match at 10-10.
Audsley restored the lead a minute later with his second penalty goal after Marcus Walsh was shown a yellow card in the middle of the park. Life had time on the ball despite the man advantage to Saint Mary’s, but an additional yellow card to Jake Anderson in the final minute of the half set up a daunting opening period of a second half for Life.
Saint Mary’s began the second half the way a team with a two-man advantage should, going through hands to spread a strained defense. Life, however, as well-drilled on defense as a team can be, made its tackles to keep the Gaels off of the scoreboard until after its scrum half returned to the pitch.
A 46th-minute scrum to the Gaels within 10 meters of the try line was all Saint Mary’s needed to punish Life’s lock’s ill-disciplined play. At the back of the scrum, Kevin O’Conner dragged the ball forward with his foot and picked it up a meter out to dot down on the white line. Audsley’s conversion split the uprights once again to give the Gaels a 20-10 lead.
Life found its collective breath following O’Conner’s try to bring the attack into Saint Mary’s half. Van Schalkwyk and Jacob McFadden moved the ball quickly towards the left-hand touch line inside the 22 and Tyrus Baytops fended a tackle to get an offload inside to an onrushing Mark Gribben, but the inside center lost the ball forward inches from the try line.
Freshman flanker Vili Helu turned the ball over as he was trying to run at the Life defense in his side’s half, and the Running Eagles capitalized with a maul. Glen Maricelli dotted down and McIlroy converted the extra two points to bring Life’s deficit to three points at 20-17.
Following a 57th-minute Life turnover in the middle third of the pitch, Audsley grabbed the ball and danced around a few defenders at his opposition’s 22. McGowan followed the play and made himself available for Audsley’s offload, and the fly half and prospective Eagle dotted down under the posts to extend the lead to 27-17.
“I’m usually the one [to go forward], but I told [Dylan Audsley] to go and I’d support him,” McGowan said after the match.
A water break gave each team time to reconvene and plan a final, 20-minute strategy. For the Gaels, the stifling defense needed to continue. Life, meanwhile, could not afford any more self-enforced mistakes.
Helu again put his side in trouble on the other side of the break by running into touch inside his own half. After sustained possession, the ball moved to Van Schalkwyk, who chip-kicked the ball from Saint Mary’s 22 over the defenders. The winger was kept away from the ball by strategic positioning of the Gaels, but prop Xander Daniels was there to collect the bouncing ball and roll over the line through a tackle to bring the score to 27-24.
In a close match, the Gaels protected the ball in the minutes following Life’s try. In the 69th minute, Saint Mary’s drew a penalty just a few meters from the touch line and nearly 40 meters from the try line. Audsley opted to go for points, and the decision paid off as the captain slotted the difficult conversion for a 30-24 lead.
Life lost one scoring threat in Baytops in a Running-Eagle-on-Running-Eagle collision inside the Gaels’ half. The winger was removed from the match and a penalty ended Life’s next attack five meters from the try zone.
The Gaels did not exert themselves on defense to the point in which they created gaps just to get the ball, and the Running Eagles were stifled each and every time they tried to switch play or offer Saint Mary’s a dummy. The reigning Champions were able to clear for a moment two minutes from time, but a quick throw forced them onto the defensive once again.
An off-the-ball incident on the left-hand touch line allowed the Running Eagles to exploit the biggest gap they had found in nearly 80 minutes of match time, but Saint Mary’s recovered to shore up its defensive shape. Life had several crash balls along the try line as the attack moved right, and the ball came loose in-goal for Audsley to clear.
With the hooter gone and Akroyd wary of a potential infraction on the try line, the final play was reviewed on the Fifth Third Bank Stadium at Kennesaw State University video board. Seeing nothing conclusive to make an additional call, the referee glanced at his watch and blew his whistle to set off the Gaels’ celebrations.
A few months ago, when Saint Mary’s relinquished the No.-1 ranking, Life looked poised to take advantage of a “struggling” rival. After Saturday’s win, this season’s losses have been put into perspective for the National Champions.
“Losing is fine if you can prove you can win,” Audsley said post-match. “The second half with Davenport [in the Semifinal] and Life – you can tell we just really wanted it.
“It was our aim to get back to the Championship. We’ve done it twice now. It’s a great feeling, but the journey as a whole is going to make it for everyone.”
Saint Mary’s and Life have battled for the D1A Rugby title three times in three states in the past three years, and each match has proven the worth of two programs bettering collegiate rugby as well as the American rugby landscape. Saturday’s match was also broadcast live on ESPN 3, with a rebroadcast scheduled for ESPN U Monday, May 11, at 11 p.m. ET.
Life | v Saint Mary’s
1. Estevan Florez
2. Alex Maughan
3. Xander Daniels
4. Mike Islava
5. Jake Anderson
6. Fotukava Malu
7. Zachary Warren
8. Glen Maricelli
9. Marcus Walsh
10. Blane McIlroy
11. Tyrus Baytops
12. Jacob McFadden
13. Mark Gribben
14. Zander Van Schalkwyk
15. Mitchell Wilson
Life | Reserves
16. Colin Smith
17. Castle Creighton
18. Sebastien Banos
19. Joshua Anderson
20. Kyle Plattor
21. Kevin Lynch
22. Duncan Van Schalkwyk
23. Conner Mooneyham
Saint Mary’s | v Life
1. Ryan Pratt
2. Michael O’Neill
3. Dino Waldren
4. Michael Tillson
5. Henry Hall
6. Viliami Helu
7. Alec Barton
8. Kevin O’Conner
9. Holden Yungert
10. Kingsley McGowan
14. Mason Colombo
12. Dylan Audsley
13. Michael McCarthy
11. Louden Charlie
15. William Maloney
Saint Mary’s | Reserves
16. Casey Reilly
17. Kraig Roscoe
18. Austen Middleton
19. Marcus Viscardi
20. Anthony De La Nuez
21. Danilo Rapadas
22. Jack Carso
23. Christopher McDonnell