LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Arizona State and Saint Mary’s are giving college rugby fans their first taste of action in the New Year. The two sides are set to go at it Friday, Jan. 6, at Saint Mary’s College, but the Sun Devils have been in Moraga, Calif., the past few days training alongside the two-time D1A Rugby National Championship winners.
“Our programs have mutual respect for each other and thought it would be a fun idea to use the time before our respective schools start to work together,” said Arizona State Head Coach Gary Lane. “The purpose is to give each team quality opposition.”
“We’re always looking to learn and share,” Saint Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien added of the combined training sessions.
The teams aren’t only familiar with one another because the Sun Devils held this year’s winter camp on the Saint Mary’s campus, but because the two play one another annually. More recently, they squared off in the Semifinals of the 2016 USA Rugby College 7s National Championships. The Gaels, who went on to win the Cup Final in dramatic fashion over American International College, had to claw back from a second-half deficit to upend Arizona State in the Semifinals.
“They have players with good rugby I.Q. They recruit exceptionally well and have a great team culture,” Lane noted of Saint Mary’s.
Both schools spent October playing sevens, but Arizona State stuck with the abbreviated code into November for the PAC 12 7s Championship. Saint Mary’s, on the other hand, began its 15s campaign at the beginning of the month. An intersquad scrimmage was followed by easy wins over Chico State and UC Santa Cruz.
The Gaels pressed on into December. First, shutting out reigning two-time D1AA National Champion UC Davis, 52-0. Then a trip to Southern California saw Saint Mary’s have its way with senior club side Santa Monica and the SoCal Griffins. Just last week the Gaels celebrated New Year’s Eve by downing local senior side Diablo, 103-15.
The perennial California Conference Champions’ propensity to be well in form soon after the New Year makes Friday’s game even more meaningful as a building block for the Sun Devils. Arizona State’s top side will be getting its first real taste of 15s tomorrow – just two weeks before opening PAC Rugby Conference play against 12th-ranked UCLA.
“It is always a challenge to play UCLA early in the season,” admitted Lane. “We need to be as ready as we can before a very good UCLA team.”
Saint Mary’s has a lot of familiar faces returning to campus for a run at a fifth consecutive appearance in the D1A Rugby National Championship game. All-Americans Dylan Audsley, Alec Barton and Kevin O’Connor, as well as field general Mike McCarthy, are all back in navy and red.
Arizona State, meanwhile, has its share of returning All-Americans in Alex Sandstrom and Bailey Stringer. Still, it’s a group of returning underclassmen that were bled a year ago that have the Sun Devils coaching staff excited about the upcoming season.
“We have the same group of freshmen and sophomores coming back this year,” Lane said. “So we have more experience at this level. I think as long as we stay healthy we have a pretty complete team with depth.”
The PAC’s Arizona State will kickoff against California’s Saint Mary’s Friday, Jan. 6, starting at 2:45 p.m. PT, and a live stream of the match is available here.