Saint Mary’s Defeats Life University 30-24 for Third National Championship in Four Years | By: Christian Portillo

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MORAGA, CALIF. - A year after Saint Mary’s lost in the D1A National Championship to Life University 24-20 in front of their home crowd, they had the opportunity to avenge themselves on Saturday at Saint Mary’s Stadium. Not only was it a chance to make up for last year’s heartbreak, it was a chance to break the tie between the Gaels and Running Eagles over the past four title matches. Life won the championship in 2013 and 2016 while Saint Mary’s repeated in 2014 and 2015.

In order to beat Life, Saint Mary’s knew that they had to improve on their sloppy 43-7 semifinal win over Arizona. Cutting down both turnovers and penalties was a focal point in practice over the past week and defense, as always, was also heavily emphasized. With this in mind, the Gaels were aware that they would have to play close to a perfect game to overcome the undefeated Running Eagles.

With the match being nationally televised on CBS Sports Network and with such high stakes at hand, the atmosphere at Saint Mary’s Stadium was full of good vibes right from the start. Life University started the game by electing to go for points after an early Gaels’ penalty. Winger Sam Cowley, who was the Mid-South Conference Player of the Month for March, kicked the ball strongly but missed as it directly hit the left goalpost and went back into the field of play.

Although things may not have gone Life’s way the first time around, sports are full of second chances. Five minutes into the match, lock Mike Islava went through the middle for the first try (and score) of the match. Cowley hit the conversion to give Life a 7-0 lead.

Saint Mary’s did not go into the match thinking that Life would commit any unforced errors or silly penalties. Life’s track record of an undefeated season calls for that type of logic. So when the occasional slip-up did occur, Saint Mary’s made sure to take full advantage of it. Such an instance was when Life was called for being offsides about eight minutes into the match. Dylan Audsley, slotted at the fullback position this year, went for points and made Life pay for their mistake by easily making his first penalty goal of the afternoon. He then proceeded to hit another penalty goal, this time from the right touch line past the 22 metre mark to cut the Running Eagles’ lead to one at 7-6.

Audsley’s kick was last touched by Life before heading into touch, leading to a Gael lineout. When Saint Mary’s got close to the try zone, the 2016 Rudy Scholz Award winner put the moves on. He received an offload from Holden Yungert after a ruck initiated by Aaron Matthews and time slowed down for him while everyone else was playing at full speed. He faked a pass to the outside while simultaneously juking his defender with a step inside that freed up a path to the promised land for the try. With the try, and the successful conversion, Audsley and crew took the lead at 13-7.

Life’s fly-half Duncan Van Schalkwyk was called for entering the ruck from the side and recieved a yellow card for his infringement. The crowd did not like his actions and relentlessly booed him as the official deliberated whether to card him or not and as he walked off the field to sit in the sin bin for the next ten minutes. Dylan Audsley took full advantage by perfectly bending in his third penalty goal from the left side almost twenty-two minutes into the match to give the Gaels a 16-7 lead.

Audsley had his kick blocked by Life in his own try zone, leading to a Life scrum. When the scrum collapsed, the Running Eagles were rewarded with a quick tap, which they used wisely. Hooker Brian Muntanga tapped the ball and took it in himself, crashing into the left goalpost pad along with several Gael defenders for the try. Sam Cowley hit the conversion to cut the deficit to two, 16-14.

Asides from his kicking prowess, Cowley did find some daylight on the ground, but offloaded it to his opposite number, Gael winger Chris McDonnell, in a lost scoring opportunity. The Business Administration major was able to make up for the turnover by hitting a penalty goal with a line drive straight down the middle to regain the lead for Life, 17-16.

This would be the score heading into halftime, where four youth sides, totalling 40 players,  showed off their talent to the packed crowd at Saint Mary’s Stadium.

The second half began to the tune of “SMC” and “Let’s go Gaels” chants sung by the home crowd. But it was the Running Eagles who struck first. Cody Melphy silenced the home crowd with a try on the right side of the goalposts. Cowley hit his third and final conversion to get the Running Eagles to 24 points on the day.

Once again, it was Dylan Audsley who got the Gaels back into the match. He made a penalty goal from just before the left 22 metre line at an incredible angle to get the Gaels within two, 22-24. Life was awarded a scrum because a Gael lineout was not straight, but the scrum collapsed and Saint Mary’s elected to go for points once again. Audsley teed up from only a few yards deeper than his previous penalty goal and the result was the same-good. The go-ahead penalty goal gave the Gaels the lead once again, 25-24. All of Saint Mary’s points up to this point in the game were scored by Dylan Audsley either in the form of a try, a conversion, and six penalty goals.

By regaining the lead, Audsley got the crowd back into the game as a few reserves, such as Marcus Viscardi and Cory Kroeger, came in for those that laid it all out on the pitch for the red and blue Gaels. Saint Mary’s 8-man Vili Helu played his heart out and had several breakaway runs throughout the match. Although he couldn’t quite find the try zone, his efforts were instrumental in getting the Gaels down the pitch and into good field position. However, his right arm had been a lingering issue for a few weeks now and he came out to a well-deserved round of applause.

Saint Mary’s fed off the electric crowd by tapping into their reserve of effort and energy that had been saved up for these exact moments. All of those early mornings in the offseason spent climbing the rolling hills of Moraga that made them question whether rugby was the sport for them while the sun was still coming up finally paid off. The Gaels’ defense picked up and did not allow Life to score again after their last score came seven-and-a-half minutes into the second half.

With the game as close as can be at 25-24, the play of the game came in the seventy-third minute. Out of the scrum, team captain Kevin O’Connor, one play removed from lying on the ground shaken up, picked up the ball, found a gap, and never looked back. He did slow down enough to get his defender to commit to him before offloading the ball to scrum-half Holden Yungert, who did a great job of running behind O’Connor and providing support before receiving the offload and joyously diving into the try zone with all of his limbs spread out for the try, giving Saint Mary’s a 30-24 lead. O’Connor credited the 2-on-1 drills always done in practice and “taking those little things seriously” for how Holden “ended up scoring in the posts, which was pretty sweet.”

Audsley had his conversion blocked, keeping the game a one possession game. If he would have got the conversion off (and made it), that would’ve given Saint Mary’s 32 points to Life’s 24, ensuring that Life would need to score more than a converted try to take the lead. The reality was that the conversion was blocked and that Saint Mary’s would have to defend like never before for the next five minutes to ensure victory because a converted try would give Life the lead, 31-30.

Determined to not let that happen, with emotions running high as you could feel the time winding down and victory inching that much closer, the Gaels did not let the Running Eagles get far. There was solid tackling displayed all-around, especially by fly-half Mike McCarthy, that stopped the Running Eagles in their tracks. It did not come without a cost, however, as both Alec Barton and Payton Telea, two of the best at their respective position, were laid out on the floor and had to be substituted out for. With no time left, Audsley had the opportunity to kick the ball into touch and end it right there, but he kept it inbounds, giving Life one last chance to score a game-winning try. But Saint Mary’s forced a Life knock-on, forcing the official to call time and subsequently ending the match right there and then. Once the whistle blew, the Gael ruggers leaped into the air out of pure joy and happiness of winning a national championship. With the 30-24 victory, the Saint Mary’s Gaels won their third D1A National Championship in four years and avenged last year’s 24-20 loss against Life at Saint Mary’s Stadium. Poetic justice for the rock-n-roll loving group, indeed.

Dylan Audsley was absolutely amazing, scoring 25 of the Gaels’ 30 points. He showed his all-around game with great footwork, solid tackling, a try, a conversion, and six penalty goals, some of which only he could make. But with his overall command and control of the match, not to mention his game-sealing try, the Men’s D1A College Championship Most Valuable Player was scrum-half Holden Yungert. Also in discussion for the MVP trophy was flanker (and 8-man when Helu went out), Kevin O’Connor, who set up Yungert’s try perfectly with his great run out of the scrum and is unquestionably this championship squad’s leader. Although not everything he does gets noticed, he definitely leaves his mark on the game and makes a difference.

Speaking of leadership, O’Connor first went to all of the Running Eagles to congratulate them on a game well played before celebrating with his own teammates. This sportsmanship and amount of class displayed at such a high level of rugby is what makes O’Connor, Coach O’Brien’s program at Saint Mary’s, and the sport of rugby so unique and respectable.

Although Life University scored as many points as they did in last year’s victorious final, they were on the other end of the stick this time around. The Running Eagles had one more try and two more conversions than the Gaels, but Audsley’s propensity to take and make six penalty kicks made all the difference this match. A perfect season was only a converted try away, but the ball did not bounce their way this year. Like always, though, expect Life to come back as strong as ever next year after having time to decompress and learn from this loss.

But it was Saint Mary’s who was victorious in the end, adorned with championship medals and various leis to celebrate their hard-earned 30-24 victory. It was a great game played by both sides and only adds to the lore that is these top two sides in the nation meeting in the national championship for five consecutive years.