Gaels’ Season in Review

By: Christian Portillo

MORAGA, CALIF. - After winning their second consecutive D1A National Championship, the expectations for the Saint Mary’s rugby team heading into the season were quite high. Head Coach Tim O’Brien was well aware of this and wanted to prepare his players for another national championship by scheduling matches against some of the top collegiate clubs in the country. Although many other coaches would schedule matches against weaker teams for guaranteed wins and a higher playoff seed, O’Brien knew that only by playing the best of the best could his team make it to the top for the third year in a row. In choosing to play the cream of the crop, O’Brien met the standard of excellence that has been set by the Saint Mary’s rugby program over 60 years of consecutive rugby.

Although the Gaels lost ruggers such as Ryan Pratt, Mike O’Neill, Kingsley McGowan, Mason Columbo, and Cooper Maloney to graduation in the spring, their replacements were more than able to pick up the slack. Sophomores Peter Walden and Ethan Waller have done a superb job holding down the fort that is the front row this season. In addition, freshman phenom Aaron Matthews has been able to transition seamlessly from high school ball to being a starter on the defending national champions at the center position.

After coasting to three preseason games where they won by an average of 81 points per match, the Gaels played their annual match against the San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Club Rhinos. The men’s club from across the bridge sent a message to the Gaels, who lost 3-44. This lackadaisical effort from Saint Mary’s brought things into perspective for the rest of the season. From this point on, the Gaels were focused and dialed in. They grinded at practice and the results showed this as they won four straight matches. The first half of these wins were in Arizona, where the Gaels beat the University of Arizona Wildcats 73-7 and also beat the Arizona State University Sun Devils 80-12. Upon their return home to Moraga, the Gaels beat a tough Lindenwood squad 24-13 in a low-scoring affair.

One of the biggest matches of the year was against Brigham Young University at Saint Mary’s Stadium. The Gaels lost a heartbreaker against the top collegiate team in the country by a mere one point, 30-29. BYU, the three-time defending Varsity Cup champions, had a 27-8 lead in the beginning of the second half. As Head Coach Tim O’Brien said during the 7th Annual Pat Vincent Dinner in November, “the tiny mighty Gaels have a lot of heart” and never gave up. Even though at one point the Cougars doubled the amount of points the Gaels put on the board (30-15), Saint Mary’s was able to rally a remarkable comeback. Two converted tries brought the Gaels within one with only seconds remaining on the game clock. However, the Gaels would not have a chance to take the lead since the official called the match after the made conversion. The loss was not something for the Gaels to hang their heads over, as they proved that they can hang with the best of them for a full eighty minutes.

After a 53-12 win over UC Santa Barbara, Saint Mary’s hosted another Varsity Cup rival, Cal Berkeley. The Golden Bears returned home with a 27-14 win.

Saint Mary’s put this loss behind them and traveled to Utah to face the University of Utah Utes and BYU. The match against the Utes in Moraga had to be cancelled to many rugby fans’ disappointment but the match in Salt Lake City quenched this thirst for great rugby. To start the road trip, the Gaels won an exciting match 57-50. They played BYU two days later, where they lost 60-15 in a match that was nowhere near as close as the first one.

The following week was the much anticipated New Zealand Tour. 33 players made the trip to the rugby-crazy country and defeated Ngongotaha, the Petone Colts and the Petone U17s, but lost to the High School Old Boys RFC. In addition to playing, the Gaels worked on their lineouts and other facets of their game with respected coaches. Being in a foreign country, there was sightseeing of course, and the Gaels got to tour Christchurch.

Back in the states, Saint Mary’s finished conference play by defeating Santa Clara 100-25 and Cal Poly 50-11 to gain a top seed and a first round bye in the D1A playoffs.

The first round match between the Air Force and Cal Poly has been postponed to due a severe weather storm in Colorado and the two teams are working on rescheduling the match. Once a day and time is decided upon and the match is played, the winner will face Saint Mary’s at Saint Mary’s Stadium in the Quarterfinals on Sunday, April 24.