Three Top 20 sides in action over three California contests

D1A Rugby: Three Top 20 sides in action over three California contests
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – The California Conference only had one game last week as teams like Saint Mary’s College and San Diego State picked up impressive nonconference victories. The two teams that did square off in a conference match, Cal Poly and Santa Clara, are back in action as part of a three-game slate in California.

Cal Poly’s home game against the Gaels has been moved to Saint Mary’s College Stadium due to field closures in San Luis Obispo, Calif., while Santa Clara pays Sacramento State a visit. The third match scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 25, will feature No. 11 San Diego State and UC Santa Barbara.

 

#1 Saint Mary’s College vs. #19 Cal Poly
The Gaels are set for their first match as Canterbury’s No. 1-ranked team since dropping the 2016 National Championship Final to Life. The top ranking is well deserved, too. The Gaels were the better team for 80 minutes against No. 4 BYU, and eventually topped the powerful Cougars, 27-12.

Some teams might have a drop-off in performance following such a crucial and physically demanding win. However, don’t expect head coach Tim O’Brien and captain Kevin O’Connor to allow Saint Mary’s to sleep on the Mustangs.

Cal Poly is coming off a quality win, as well. After taking one on the chin against second-ranked Cal, the Mustangs got back on their feet to beat Santa Clara on the road, 50-19. The 31-point hammering finally pushed Cal Poly into the D1A Rugby Top 20 after hovering just outside of the rankings for most of the season.

“We are carrying some good momentum from our Santa Clara performance, but have identified a number of areas which need further improvement,” said Cal Poly lead man James Tesoriero.

An already soggy California is expecting rain in Moraga Saturday, where the two Top 20 sides will meet. The Mustangs are a very strong scrummaging team, and Saint Mary’s enjoys moving the ball as fast and wide as possible. Traditional thought would give Cal Poly an advantage playing in wet conditions, but the team understands nothing will come easy against the best team in the country.

“In theory, the expected wet conditions should advantage us on Saturday. However, we played Saint Mary’s in very wet conditions last season and they played the conditions better than we did on that occasion,” Tesoriero recalled.

Cal Poly can’t afford to lose at scrum time, but is also very concerned with the battle in the lineout, minimizing errors and being accurate in the kicking game, which are “all difficult things against a high quality team,” according to Tesoriero.

 

Sacramento State vs. Santa Clara
Sacramento State’s third attempt to earn a conference victory in its return campaign to D1A Rugby will come against Santa Clara after the Hornets dropped their Jan. 28 opener against UC Santa Barbara, as well as their bout with San Diego State two weeks back. Still, the Broncos must feel just as eager to notch a victory after their lopsided defeat to Cal Poly last weekend.

Santa Clara picked up a few injuries during its Feb. 11 win over UC Santa Barbara, and things got worse last week against Cal Poly when hooker Mitch Spinelli came off midway through the first half. The Broncos were nursing a 12-10 lead when Spinelli had to leave the pitch, but their set pieces faltered when the hooker limped off and they were subsequently outscored 40-7 in the second half.

“We need to get that sorted out for this week,” Santa Clara Head Coach Paul Keeler said of his team’s lineout. “The weather in Northern California has been conducive to productive training lately, and bad weather is expected. Our lineout needs to be on.”

One cure from the Broncos’ lineout woes could be more touches for Asad Braswell. The winger with pace to burn, who was recruited to play Division I football, has scored a pair of tries in both of Santa Clara’s past two games.

“He is an explosive athlete and our system works well for him as we look to spread the ball through multiple players and phases,” Keeler said of Braswell. “He can be electric, he’s very strong on his feet and very elusive with great balance and speed. If he gets space, he’ll take it and is hard to bring down.”

 

UC Santa Barbara vs. No. 11 San Diego State
San Diego State hasn’t hid from challenging nonconference contests in recent years, and the Aztecs’ willingness to play the country’s best paid off last week when they beat then-ranked No. 11 Arizona, 30-12. Given the quality of win earned last week, and a huge March 4 date with No. 1 Saint Mary’s fast approaching, a visit to Santa Barbara smells like a trap game for San Diego State.

The Gauchos’ Feb. 11 loss to Santa Clara may have slowed a bit of momentum building in the Santa Barbara camp following their 21-point win against Sacramento State to close January. Still, there is plenty of excitement around the team as it looks forward to the test of battling D1A Rugby’s 11th ranked side.

“The boys are really up for this game. With Southern California heavyweight bragging rights on the line, it’s a good opportunity for us to prove ourselves,” head coach Tim Lewis said.

UC Santa Barbara’s performance dropped off a bit during its last outing against Santa Clara. The Gauchos have had two weeks to correct the mistakes made against the Broncos, specifically on defense, set pieces and making sure to execute what’s in front of them.

“Against Santa Clara we got caught worrying a bit too much about our next job before we took care of first things first,” Lewis added. “Don’t be surprised of it comes down to who has the best goal kicker.”

An outcome decided by goal kicking would be fortuitous for UC Santa Barbara because it would mean the Gauchos hung with San Diego State deep into the second half. However, UC Santa Barbara should be careful what it wishes for. Aztec inside center Harrison Barkham scored half of his team’s 30 points from the kicking tee last week, including a perfect 3-for-3 on conversion attempts during San Diego State’s victory against Arizona.