Gaels Defeat Utah 55-12 in a Semifinal Rematch | By: Christian Portillo

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MORAGA, CALIF. - In a rematch of the 2016 USA Rugby National Championship Semifinals, #3 Saint Mary’s took on #14 Utah at Saint Mary’s Stadium for their second non-conference match of the young spring season. The end outcome was similar to the Semifinals as the Gaels walked away with a 55-12 victory over the Utes, marking two straight matches in which Saint Mary’s has defeated Utah by a margin of over 40 points since narrowly defeating them by a late converted try 57-50 during last year’s regular season matchup in Salt Lake City.

Saint Mary’s had a balanced plan of attack against Utah, which led to a total of eight different individual ruggers scoring a try for the Gaels. It all started with the Gaels spreading the pitch wide and firing off short yet rapid passes from left to right and Mike McCarthy assisting sophomore Aaron Matthews for a sliding try two-and-a-half minutes into the match.

Eight minutes later, scrum-half Holden Yungert found a way into the try zone and Dylan Audsley hit his first of five conversions on the afternoon. Soon after this, light rain came on the field and water was splashing whenever someone’s spikes on the bottom of their cleats hit the ground.

The slightly wet conditions may not have been in Utah’s favor as the ball went forward during one of their possessions, becoming a turnover that Saint Mary’s would take advantage of via a Mike Wallace try on the left side, assisted by Aaron Matthews. Vili Helu, the only Gael to score multiple tries on the day, scored his first try off of a Saint Mary’s scrum. Audsley’s conversion made it a 24-0 game halfway into the first half. The scrum proved to be effective for the Gaels as Yungert assisted Chris McDonnell on a try after the Gaels were rewarded with a scrum near the try line.

Saint Mary’s team captain Kevin O’Connor was assessed a yellow card at the 11:30 mark and had to sit out for ten minutes as a consequence. Even though they were down a player, it did not seem to bother the Gaels that much. Vili Helu shook his initial defender, found himself in the open field, and managed to squeeze into the try zone for his second try of the day.

Although being down a man may not have hurt the Gaels on that offensive possession, Utah took special care to capitalize on the advantage of having one more rugger on the field. It was lock Caleb Meyer that slid into the left side of the try zone to put the Utes on the board, becoming the first person to score a try against the Gaels’ defense this regular season.

Saint Mary’s responded to giving up their first try of the season with a try of their own. It was Mike McCarthy with another assist, this time to the inaugural Scholz Award winner Dylan Audsley, who saw a hole open up before his eyes to score a try. He was able to convert his own try to give Saint Mary’s a 41-5 lead at the half.

The Gaels’ offense cooled down in the second half, only scoring two converted tries compared to the seven tries and three conversions scored in the first half. But when they did score, they did so in a fabulous fashion. Eight minutes into the second half, reserve Jack Carso was on the left side, put the moves on, made it to the middle of the field, and then cutback to the left side for a try while leaving defenders on the wet ground. Audsley hit the conversion to expand the lead to 48-5.

Even though the Gaels’ offense was not as powerful in the second half, their defense remained stellar. Saint Mary’s had solid, fundamental tackles throughout the match. But the emotional plays that made fans burst in cheers were the two amazing defensive goal lines stands. Utah is a top-15 team in the nation and could not get past the Gaels’ line of defense to score a try. On the first instance, Utah was at the goal-line for quite a while but could not get anywhere on the inside. When the Utes tried to go wide right, Tommy Wallace, who recently got stitches on his eye, was there to tackle the Ute into touch and give the ball back to the Gaels. On the second great defensive goal-line instance, Utah ended up being called for a knock-on when they were so close to scoring. They say defense is all about effort, and these two defensive goal-line stands show that Saint Mary’s has the will of a someone fighting to live another day.

Utah hooker Chad Gough is an All-American for a reason. After Utah was rewarded with a lineout for a Gael being tackled into touch, Gough hurried and inbounded the ball to the first man in the lineout, quickly got it back, ran along the left sideline, tricked the lone defender into thinking he would kick the ball, went around this same defender, and scored Utah’s second try on the left sideline. Kelsin Pupunu’s conversion was perfect and made the score 48-12.

Reserve Cory Kroeger had quite an interesting end to the match. The senior had a very nice run down the sideline but ended up knocking it on. However, the crowd noticed his excellent efforts and cheered him on. He then had a forward pass that was called. But when the scoreboard read 0:00 and the game was on the official’s time, it was Cory Kroeger who scored a try on the left sideline after an assist from Alejandro Duran. Kroeger’s redemption all started because Utah was not back 10 yards and were assessed another penalty, which enabled the Gaels to keep their possession alive and give Kroeger the chance to finish the game on a positive note. Dylan Audsley then perfectly hit his fifth and final conversion at a nearly impossible angle to win the game for the Gaels, 55-12.

Saint Mary’s scored nine total tries and made five conversions to get their 55 points. 75% of their  points (41 of 55) were scored in the first half. Utah had two tries and one conversion for their 12 points.

Utah, who defeated Dixie State 56-15 last week, will travel to Berkeley to face #2 Cal in a PAC Rugby Conference match next Saturday, January 28th.

Saint Mary’s, who defeated UC Santa Barbara 94-0 last week, will finish their January homestand next Saturday, January 28th, with another California Conference matchup against Santa Clara at Saint Mary’s Stadium at 1:00 P.M.