Gaels Defeat BYU and Are Headed for the Rugby National Championships

Saint Mary’s bested the Cougars 48–31 on April 20 and solidified their place as best in the west. On May 4 in Houston, they take on Navy for the national trophy.

by Aidan Payne-Kraus ’25 | April 20, 2024

The Saint Mary’s Men’s Rugby team is headed for the national championship. In an exhilarating match on April 20, the Gaels solidified their place as No. 1 team in the west with a win against BYU in the Division 1A Rugby semi-finals. Playing on their home pitch in Moraga before more than 3,000 fans, the Gaels defeated the Cougars 48–31. For the national championship match, the Gaels take on Navy on May 4 in Houston.

Saturday’s contest was a thriller that showcased the best of collegiate rugby. Following the opening kickoff, the game burst into life with BYU launching a relentless assault on the SMC defense right away. For nearly five minutes, the Cougars surged forward with relentless pressure, but the Gaels stood firm. A crucial turnover saw SMC’s Inoke Waqavesi ’23, MA ’24 execute a pinpoint kick, setting up a Gaels lineout deep in Cougar territory. The Gaels mounted a strong attack from perfect position: Dominic Besag ’26, a finalist for the top collegiate rugby player in the nation this year, got loose and scored in the left corner, drawing first blood for Saint Mary’s.

Men's rugby player Inoke Waqavesi holds the ball next to a scrum of BYU players, April 2024
Accouracy counts: Inoke Waqavesi ‘23, MA ’24 executed a pinpoint kick to set up the first try for the Gaels. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Soon after, Sosaia Pongi ’26 extended SMC's lead with a clinical finish in the opposite corner. Showcasing their attacking prowess, the Gaels continued to dominate, with Iosefa Toia'ivao ’26, known to his teammates as JT, orchestrating a scintillating run from a center scrum. This brought the score to 17–0 Gaels following a Mario Storti ’25 conversion.

However, BYU was determined to claw their way back into the contest, and capitalized on an SMC error for their first try. When the halftime whistle blew, it was 17–7 Gaels.

Men's rugby player Sosaia Pongi dives with the ball over a BYU defender, April 2024
Clinical finish: Sosaia Pongi ’26 / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Evening the Score

The second half witnessed a shift in momentum as BYU stormed back into contention, leveling the score at 17 apiece. That set the stage for a thrilling final 20 minutes.

Following the third BYU try, SMC kicked off and flew into the first ruck, winning possession immediately. Then they won a penalty on the five-meter line and opted for a scrum. Erich Storti ’23, MA ’24 beat the man in front of him and scored the Gaels’ fourth try of the day. Brother Mario Storti converted to make it 24–17. A few minutes later, an awesome team try was finished nicely by team captain Kaipono Kayoshi ’23, MA ’24, widening the Gaels’ lead to 29–17.

Men's rugby player Iosefa Toia'ivao passes to No.13 Erich Storti, while BYU defenders try to stop him, April 2024
Forward momentum: Iosefa Toia'ivao ’26 passes to No.13 Erich Storti ‘23, MA ’24 / Photo by Rebecca Harper

But the Cougars refused to go quietly. They closed the gap to 29–24 with just minutes remaining on the clock. Once more SMC showcased the grit and resilience they needed, with Inoke Waqavesi and Erich Storti combining to extend the Gaels’ lead. 

With the countdown to the final whistle, SMC's Scrumhalf Hunter Modlin ’24 snuck through a gap close to the ruck to score one of his own, effectively sealing victory at 41–24. Despite a last-ditch effort from BYU to narrow the deficit, Dominic Besag’s second try of the day put the game beyond doubt, with SMC emerging triumphant with a final scoreline of 48-31. 

SMC Tries: Dominic Besag (2), Sosia Pongi, Iosefa Toia'ivao, Kaipono Kayoshi, Erich Storti (2), Hunter Modlin

SMC Conversions: Mario Storti (4)

As part of Saturday’s game, the Gaels also drew fans’ attention to the fact that April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Before the match, the team appeared in teal T-shirts emblazoned with Gaels Rise Against Sexual Assault.

Men's rugby players stand in a row wearing teal T-shirts emblazoned with Gaels Rise Against Sexual Violence
Gaels Rise Against Sexual Violence: Before the match, the Gaels wore T-shirts to support campus-wide programs as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

“Texas, here we come!”

One way the Gaels celebrated victory on Saturday was with a message to fans across social media: “Texas, here we come!” The national championship match takes place on May 4 at SaberCats Stadium in Houston. Saint Mary's faces defending national champs Navy.

This is the Gaels’ seventh appearance in the national championship since 2013. The team is guided by the seasoned hand of Coach Timothy O’Brien, who has devoted 22 years to SMC Rugby. In the past decade, the Gaels have claimed the cup numerous times: in 2014, 2015, and 2017. In 2016, the Gaels won the national championship in rugby sevens—seven players playing seven-minute halves, versus the usual 15-person teams playing 40-minute halves. In 2022, Saint Mary’s made it to the championship match but suffered a heart-wrenching 20–8 loss to Army.

Men's rugby player Kaipono Kayoshi carries the ball across the try line, while a BYU defender tries to stop him, April 2024
Big finish: Team Captain Kaipono Kayoshi ’23, MA ’24 widens the Gaels’ lead. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Dominic Besag, who scored two tries against BYU on Saturday, acknowledged that the Gaels made some mistakes in the match. “We were far from perfect today,” Besag told the Mercury News. “But we’re super-pumped (to go to Houston), because it’s everything we’ve ever been working for.”

Besag has already earned special recognition for his play with the Gaels: He is one of four finalists for the Rudy Scholz Award, which recognizes the top collegiate rugby player in the United States. Eighteen players were nominated for the Rudy Scholz Award this year, including Gaels teammate Eric Storti. The winner receives the trophy at a gala event on June 8, hosted by the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle, Washington. 

Men's rugby player Hunter Modlin carries the ball while other players lie on the ground, April 2024
One more try: Scrumhalf Hunter Modlin ’24, whose try put the Gaels up 41–24 / Photo by Rebecca Harper 

The award has been presented since 2016, when the first winner was Saint Mary’s Dylan Audsley ’17. The Gaels’ Peyton Telea Ilalio ’20 won the award in 2020—making Saint Mary’s one of only two teams to have twice won the award. The other? Navy, the same team the Gaels face in this year’s championship match. It’s fair to say the championship this year is a contest of greats.