LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Saint Mary’s has been on a determined mission to return to the D1A Rugby National Championship game since a disappointing loss to Life University in the 2016 grand finale. The four-point defeat in front of their home fans at Saint Mary’s Stadium left a bitter taste in the Gaels’ mouths after winning National Championships in 2014 and 2015. Following a win over San Diego State in last week’s Quarterfinals, Saint Mary’s final roadblock to returning to the National Championship game comes in the form of an April 29 Semifinal at home versus Arizona.
Of the four semifinalists remaining in the D1A Rugby Playoffs the Wildcats might be the most surprising team to be alive in the 2017 postseason. An up-and-down regular season was good enough to place Arizona in the playoffs for a second consecutive season after reaching the Quarterfinals in 2016. Two postseason wins later, however, and the Wildcats are one of four teams with a shot of winning a National Championship, but will enter its Semifinal fixture against the top-ranked Gaels as a major underdog.
“We got that out of the way early – we’ve already moved beyond that,” said Arizona Head Coach Sean Duffy in regards to the daunting task ahead of the team.
The Wildcats addressed the monkey in the room – Saint Mary’s is really good and the vast majority of people who follow college rugby will pick the two-time National Champions at home to beat Arizona. They also acknowledged a few other points worth keeping in mind this week in training. What’s at stake in the April 29 Semifinal – a spot in the D1A National Championship game – should be stressed, not the opposition. The team also agreed there’s no reason to take the field Saturday with any apprehensiveness.
“We don’t feel any pressure. The pressure is on the team that is the favorite. Nobody thought we’d be here,” Duffy noted.
The result from Monday’s self reflection is a group of guys showing up to training happy, loose and having a ton of fun. The Wildcats ought to be enjoying their rugby, too. A pair of postseason outings have seen Arizona go on the road and defeat conference champions fairly easily. First, the Wildcats traveled to the United States Air Force Academy where they took down the Zoomies, 51-7. Last weekend in the Quarterfinals, Arizona had its way with Red River Champions Baylor, 48-5.
Prior to entering the playoffs, the Wildcats hit a low point in their season after traveling to Salt Lake City and getting hammered by Utah, 53-3. Since that defeat Duffy has noticed his team being far more efficient on attack and valuing their possessions in the red zone, as well as a newfound proficiency at each and every practice.
“Guys have been trying to extract as much out of each rep, each training session,” applauded Duffy. “They’ve gone about it in a very professional way.”
The Gaels have managed to kick their form into higher gear, as well. A March 25 win over Cal solidified Saint Mary’s No. 1 ranking ahead of its spring break tour to Ireland and Scotland where the team enhanced its prowess in the scrum.
“One of the biggest takeaways from the tour was the level of intensity of the scrum – especially in Europe,” said flanker Kevin O’Connor.
After getting an introduction to scrumming in the United Kingdom early in the week, the team was determined to show well in that area by the time it took the pitch for its third and final match of the trip against what would be its toughest test of the tour. After victories against Trinity College’s B-side and Cartha Queens Park RFC, the Gaels ventured to Glasgow where it enjoyed a contest against Glasgow Warriors’ Academy team. The American side lost, but Saint Mary’s did more than hold its own around the entire park and got back on a flight for the States feeling it could scrum down against the best forward packs in college rugby.
Rather than looking tired in their first game back home after playing three grueling matches in a five-day span in the United Kingdom, the Gaels put on one of their best performances of the season in their 72-5 handling of San Diego State to kick off their 2017 postseason campaign. The outing was even more impressive than Saint Mary’s 52-point dismissal of the Aztecs in March – especially given the form San Diego State was in heading into the win-or-go-home contest.
O’Connor believes the team’s defense, which has been the “backbone for the entire season so far,” was improved during the Gael’s second win over the Aztecs, but it’s also that time of the year when even a team as clinical as Saint Mary’s increases its level of intensity a notch or two.
“It’s playoff time. There’s no next week – you lose and you’re done. So that’s always in the back of our minds, as well,” the captain said.
Postseason or not, the Gaels never underestimate an opponent and the team has worked too hard since September to sleep on an Arizona side that is ranked well behind Saint Mary’s.
“They’re a very well coached team,” O’Connor pointed out. “They’ve got a lot of young players that have experience with the All-Americans, and it’s just a matter of not allowing those players to have space or time to think. There are a few players we’ll have to bottle-up and make the others around them beat us. Looking at them, they’ve got a lot of good players in their back line, so our back line is going to have their hands full.”
When Arizona tuned in to film on Saint Mary’s earlier this week, it’s no surprise the Wildcats saw justification in its No. 1 ranking.
“We have great respect for them,” said Duffy. “What they do in attack with the decision-makers they have along the back line keeps you on your toes. Defensively they are very sound, a great tackling team and this group is well coached. Tim O’Brien does a great job.”
Saturday’s Semifinal between the Gaels and Wildcats will kick off at 1 p.m. PT and the contest will be livestreamed on SMCGaels.com. The winning side will advance to the Saturday, May 6, D1A National Championship game at Saint Mary’s Stadium. The 2017 D1A Rugby National Championship will kick off at 4 p.m. PT and air live on CBS Sports Network.