Gaels Win Rugby National Championship

In an epic battle on May 4 in Houston, Saint Mary’s defeats Navy 26–22 to bring home the Division 1A Trophy.

by Steven Boyd Saum, Office of Marketing & Communications | May 4, 2024

Meet the new national champions in men’s rugby: the Saint Mary’s Gaels. SMC Men’s Rugby surged out to an early lead and held tough to the end to defeat Navy 26–22 to win the Men’s Rugby Division 1A National Championship in Houston on Saturday evening. 

It was an epic contest at Sabercats Stadium that pitted two rugby powerhouses in this combat sport. The Gaels displayed their signature expansive and unpredictable style of play, capping what has been a stellar season.

Saint Mary’s showed their attacking prowess before even two minutes had elapsed in the match. A successful try by Dominic Besag ’26 and a conversion by Mario Storti ’25 made it 7–0 Gaels. 

Not three minutes later, the Gaels struck again. Navy defenders zeroed in on Besag, who tossed a pass to Erich Storti ’23, MBA ’24, who carried the ball across the line. A conversion by younger brother Mario Storti put SMC up 14–0. It looked as if a rout might be in the cards.

Rugby player Dominic Besag runs while Navy defenders chase him in 2024 national championship
First points on the board: Dominic Besag ’26 with a try for the Gaels not even two minutes into the match. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Instead, that’s when a grinding battle began.

With teams exchanging possessions for the following 10 minutes, it was a Gael who put the next points on the board: John Battle Wilson ’26 took a pass from Dominic Besag and charged over Navy’s try line. Another conversion by Mario Storti made the score 21–0 Saint Mary’s. 

But Navy did not go quietly into the half. The Midshipmen capitalized on a forward pass by Saint Mary’s—a play not allowed in rugby—which turned the ball over to Navy. Team Captain Ben Haugh managed to push over the SMC try line to make the score 21–5 at halftime.

Rugby player Erich Storti runs with the ball in 2024 National Championship
Crossing the line: Erich Storti ’23, MBA ’24 scores the second try for the Gaels. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Fighting it out on the try line

With daylight fading and the teams now illuminated by the glare of the stadium lights, the Gaels resumed their attack in the second half. Once again they were the first to score. A perfect lofting pass from Dominic Besag reached Sosaia Pongi ’26, who strode across the try line, putting the Gaels up 26–5. 

That’s when Navy really found their footing, and with phase play they began pushing the ball methodically toward the Saint Mary’s try line. The Gaels fought hard at the line itself to keep the Midshipmen at bay, but Navy’s William Webb managed to get the ball across. A conversion from the flank made the score 26–12.

Trouble seemed to be brewing. After all, defending champs Navy came back from behind to win the trophy in 2023, and they came back from behind to defeat Notre Dame in a big match this season. Would they roar back again against the Gaels? 

Men's rugby player John Battle Wilson runs with the ball while a Navy defender tries to tackle him in 2024 National Championship
Unstoppable: John Battle Wilson ’26 charges for Gael try No. 3. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Indeed, Navy kept up their domination of play by pushing the ball into Saint Mary’s territory, with the Gaels now looking like they were on their back feet. When Navy drove the ball to the SMC try line at 65 minutes in, the Gaels still held tough there for agonizing minutes. But Navy’s Vaughn Schmitz managed to find a wrinkle and get the ball across the line; a successful conversion made it 26–19. Only one score separated the teams.

Things got even dicier when Navy intercepted a Saint Mary’s lineout and found themselves close enough to go for a kick. Roanin Krieger put it between the posts for Navy; that was good for three points, making the score 26–22. And with the momentum Navy seemed to have, they threatened the SMC try line repeatedly.

Navy is a big, physical team, and they used those qualities to execute pick and drive toward the Gaels’ line, sometimes only gaining inches at a time. The Gaels defense didn’t buckle, but Navy continued to gain those inches. Then, with less than six minutes on the clock, the Gaels secured a turnover on their own goal line.

Men's rugby player Sosaia Pongi runs with the ball while Navy defenders chase him in 2024 National Championship
Out of the gates: Sosaia Pongi ’26 outraces Navy defenders and puts the first points on the board in the second half. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

With SMC back in possession, Erich Storti kicked the ball from beyond the Gaels’ try line to clear it out—which he did. But just after he kicked, he was felled by a Navy player who made a late hit, smashing into Storti’s shin. While Storti was clearly in pain, he stayed on the pitch.

With a lineout from the penalty for that late hit, Saint Mary’s launched their own attack—with Dominic Besag trying to find a way around Navy defenders. The Gaels’ drive was stopped short when they were called again for a forward pass, and Navy resumed possession in SMC territory. 

What happened next was remarkable to behold: Navy was on the attack, but in trying to find their way out and around the Gaels, SMC on defense continually managed to push the ball back, even into Navy territory. The Midshipmen dropped the ball a couple of times and took hard hits from the Gaels. Even so, with the clock past 80 minutes and only injury time remaining, Navy surged forward once more and managed to push the ball close to the Gaels’ try line. 

That’s where a crucial Gaels’ interception came in: SMC regained possession with, as it turned out, only seconds to go. And that was enough to secure victory. The final whistle blew, and it was official: The Saint Mary’s Gaels were national champs.

Rugby players Inoke Waqevesi and King Matu battle against Navy defenders in 2024 National Championship
The distributor: While Midshipmen try to stop King Matu ’24, the ball is in the hands Inoke Waqavesi Jr. ’23, MA ’24, who is quick at getting it where it needs to be for the Gaels. / Photo by Francis Tatem 

“Our winning equation.”

Beaming with exhilaration and perhaps some disbelief that the journey was over, Erich Storti spoke with a reporter afterward and thanked the Saint Mary’s alumni for their tremendous support over the last several years. Storti was singled out for some special recognition himself: He was given the trophy for player of the game. For his part, Saint Mary’s Coach Tim O’Brien was typically low key, crediting the team’s efficiency on the pitch. It is, after all, what wins games.

This is the seventh trip the Gaels have made to the national championship since 2013 under Coach O’Brien. Now they’ve won it four times—in 2014, 2015, 2017, and 2024. They also won the national championship for rugby sevens—with teams of seven, versus the usual 15—in 2016.

On the eve of this year’s championship match, Inoke Waqavesi Jr. ’23, MA ’24 spoke about how the Gaels are an attacking team. “We love to move the ball,” he said. “There are three elements of our game: juice, joy, and accuracy. It’s our winning equation.” The juice and accuracy were thoroughly on display Saturday, especially in the first half. And a winning equation it was. As for joy: that was on the faces of each and every Gael as they held aloft that championship trophy.

Men's rugby captain Kaipono Kayoshi carries the ball while Navy defenders try to strip it away in 2024 National Championship
Breaking through: Team Captain Kaipono Kayoshi ’23, MA ’24 tries to power through Navy defenders. / Photo by Rebecca Harper

Going into the match, Waqavesi had spoken for all three of the team leaders—Captain Kaipono Kayoshi ’23, MA ’24, himself, and Erich Storti—about , as teammates, they were finishing their careers as Gaels by playing for the national championship. “I wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said.

Better still was winning it all.

SMC Tries: Dominic Besag, Erich Storti, Sosaia Pongi, John Battle Wilson

Convs: Mario Storti (3)

Video: National Championship Game Highlights

Video by Bryan Navarro ’10


More Accolades and Honors for Gaels

There’s more good news and accolades for Gael rugby players: Erich Storti and Dominic Besag have made the cut for the US Eagles National Team, as the team puts together its extended squad in preparation for summer matches.

Collegiate Rugby announced the 2023–24 All-Americans, and altogether ten Gaels make the teams.

First Team All-Americans for Rugby 15’s include Kaipono Kayoshi, plus Dominic Besag, Erich Storti, and Iosefa Toiaivao ’26.

Second Team All-Americans for Rugby 15’s include John Wilson ’26, Inoke Waqavesi Jr., Sosaia Pongi, and Mario Storti.

Third Team All-Americans for Rugby 15’s include Hunter Chuhlantseff ’23, MS ’24.

Off the pitch, Gaels rugby player Jake Negrete ’23, MA ’24 received accolades for academic achievement: He is the recipient of the Excellence in Graduate Kinesiology Award from SMC, awarded to a student who demonstrates general excellence in graduate studies of Kinesiology.

Photo Gallery: 2024 Rugby National Championship

Tracing the journey of Saint Mary's Men's Rugby through the National Championship: from sendoff in Moraga to practice in Houston, Gaels’ fans tailgate and cheering from the stands, preparing for the match and action on the pitch—and, at last, the sweet celebration of victory. Photos by Francis Tatem and Rebecca Harper.

Steven Boyd Saum is Executive Editor of Strategic Communications & Content at Saint Mary’s. Write him.

Story updated with video highlights and photo gallery on May 5, 2024 at 10 a.m. Pacific