BOULDER, Colo. – One of the great things about playoff college rugby is the distinct matchups between teams representing different conferences that would otherwise never step on the pitch together. That is not the case with the D1A Quarterfinal game between Saint Mary’s and Utah. Each program loves a challenge and makes a point to play the very best in the country – that is why Saturday will be the third time the two sides have faced each other in less than four months.
The teams’ first meeting was on the campus of Saint Mary’s, and also happened to be the Utes’ first match of the season. An already-battle-tested Gaels side jumped all over the visitors in an 81-15 rout. The second encounter, which was on the eve of a Saint Mary’s-versus-BYU contest, easily went the way of Utah as the Gaels didn’t start a number of standout players.
Still, Saint Mary’s center Kingsley McGowan is quick to point out that his team didn’t fare much better in the second half after a handful of typical starters entered the game after watching the first 40 minutes from the sideline.
“They flat-out beat us,” admitted McGowan. “A loss is a loss, and we weren’t good enough on the day.”
In order to win April 25’s rubber match, the Gaels must be better in the set pieces than they were the last time they tangled with Utah. Having AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American hooker Mike O’Neil on the field from the opening whistle will go a long way to improve that area of Saint Mary’s game. O’Neil didn’t start April 13 against Utah and, as a result, the No. 2-ranked team in the country couldn’t re-win possession from its lineout.
For a team that plays the busiest and most competitive schedule in the country, Saint Mary’s two-week layoff since its 96-0 shutout of Santa Clara must seem like an eternity. In the meantime, the Gaels have been bringing higher levels of intensity and physicality to their recent training sessions.
“It’s time to show up and get the job done, and to do that we’ll have to push ourselves – which is what we’ve been doing at practice,” said McGowan.
Heavy rain is expected in Moraga, Calif., when the two squads meet. For a team like Saint Mary’s, which displays so much confidence in its passing, catching, and line depth in dry conditions, one would think its structures might be altered on a damp pitch. However, don’t expect the Gaels to waver from their expansive style of play.
“We don’t plan for [the weather], but our tactics will change if it’s wet,” explained McGowan. “Still, I don’t think we’ll change too much as a team.”
In Utah’s camp, the fancy footwork of back-line standouts Danny Christensen and Tonata Lauti garnish many of the headlines, but the play of prop Spencer Vickery has been one of the driving forces behind the Utes’ successful season. The powerful senior leads from the front, and brings a fiery mentality that teammates feed off of.
Fortunately for Saint Mary’s, the Gaels have a pair of formidable props in All-Americans Ryan Pratt and Dino Waldren who will provide plenty of resistance.
The third and final confrontation between the Gaels and Utes will kick off at 1 p.m. PT, and will be available to watch on Saint Mary’s webstream channel.