Utah stands between Saint Mary’s, return to D1A Final

D1A Rugby: Utah stands between Saint Mary’s, return to D1A Final
Photo Credit: Karen Drinkwater (left) & Jay Morrison (right)

LAFAYETTE Colo. – Saint Mary’s and Utah aren’t quite as familiar with one another as their D1A Semifinalist counterparts – Life and Lindenwood – but still have recent history against each other.

Last year, Saint Mary’s split a home-and-away series with the Utes. This season, a snow storm prevented Utah from making its trip to California to face the Gaels, but Saint Mary’s was able to make it to Salt Lake City, where the defending National Champion just barely got past the Utes, 57-50.

Utah has been reasonably successful against Saint Mary’s, compared to how most teams fare against the No. 2-ranked Gaels, but the West Conference Champions still hold them with high regard.

“They have competition for every jersey, so you know that whomever occupies the jersey on the day is going to contribute,” complimented Utah Associate Head Coach Jon Law. “They pass, catch, run, track, and tackle well. In my opinion, they flow from one phase to the next with better timing and clarity than any team in the country.”

The Gaels’ ability to link phases together has only become more seamless with Mike McCarthy’s return to fly half. After beginning 2016 with prized freshman Aaron Matthews acting as first receiver, the team tested combinations during their spring break tour of New Zealand, and returned stateside with McCarthy in the No. 10 jumper and Matthews slotted at inside center.

“Aaron at 12 has the ability to stay on his feet and keep the ball alive,” said Saint Mary’s Assistant Coach Johnny Everett. “Mike is the vocal point of our offense and he calls the plays, so it was a natural move to No. 10.”

Outside of testing combinations while on tour, the other major successful product from the week spent in New Zealand was getting the team’s lineout back on track. The set piece move hamstrung the Gaels in losses to BYU and Cal, but hard work and repetition has made the lineout a platform-setting piece for its attack once again.

“We worked every day on timing of the throw and lift, and it has shown in the ability to win quality ball,” Everett added.

Dating back to the years All-Americans and capped Eagles Kingsley McGowan and Tim Maupin were scoring tries for Saint Mary’s, the Gaels back line has always seemed to receive the majority of the program’s notoriety – and maybe that can be said for most teams. Still, Saint Mary’s returns six of its eight starting forwards from last year’s lineup that beat Life, 30-24, for the 2015 D1A National Championship. The half dozen returnees include captain Kevin O’Connor, All-American Dino Waldren, former High School All-American Vili Helu, and a more-than-reliable senior locking pair in Henry Hall and Mike Tilson.

Given the number of talented athletes on the field and the amount of rugby Saint Mary’s plays, it’s no shocker that the Gaels have a knack for turning other teams’ mistakes into points. That’s why Utah’s coaching staff is concerning the team with limiting its errors during its preparation for the Semifinals. The Utes can minimize mistakes and Saint Mary’s scoring opportunities if fly half Josh Webber, who manages Utah’s attack, and West Conference Back of the Year Taylor Thomas, who is sure to see his share of touches in the midfield, make good decisions.

Similar to Utah’s defeat of Arizona back in January, the Utes stumbled early in their Quarterfinal match against the Wildcats before outscoring its opponent 31-3 down the stretch to advance to the Semifinals. If Utah can piece together two quality halves instead of allowing the Gaels to jump ahead early, the Utes could be primed for an upset.

Kickoff for the D1A Semifinal hosted by Saint Mary’s is April 30, 1 p.m. PT, and the match will be available to watch online via Gael Vision. The winning side between Saint Mary’s and Utah will play for the May 7 D1A National Championship against whichever team comes out on top in the other Semifinal match pitting No. 1 Life versus No. 3 Lindenwood.