It has been a tough start to the month of March for the Mustangs as tight losses and injuries have hit the ruggers in the gut, but with matches against 2013 Ivy League champs Dartmouth tonight and 2013 Varsity Cup champs BYU in Utah next Wednesday, the Mustangs have every chance to regain momentum and confidence leading into the back end of the D1A season.
On March 1st Cal Poly travelled to Moraga to take on St Mary’s College who were recently ranked the number 1 team in the country after an impressive win over BYU the week before. It was and always is a bruising match between these two Californian D1A sides and this encounter was no different.
Muddy conditions for both sides in Moraga. Photo Karen Drinkwater.
Substantial rainfall in Moraga the day before the match left the pitch in a soggy state that hampered both teams attacking chances. With dropped balls a certainty a lot of attacking stability would rely on strength of each teams scrum. The week before the Gaels scrum tore the BYU pack a part, a rare site for those who have seen BYU scrums of the past.
For the Mustangs it was down to freshman tighthead prop Eddie McFarland, stepping up for injured 2013 All American prop Eric Parsons, to anchor Cal Poly’s scrum against might of the Gaels. McFarland with only a handful of matches at tighthead prop cause his opposing loosehead prop so much difficulty that referee Phil Akroyd had no choice but to yellow card the Gaels no.1 in the second half for repeated illegal scrimmaging.
Tighthead prop Eddie McFarland ready to pack against the mighty St Mary’s scrum. Photo Karen Drinkwater
These continued penalties at scrum time gave the Mustangs much needed field position throughout the game but a lack of “that finishing touch” prevented the visitors from converting line breaks into points.
After restricting the dangerous St Mary’s attack to two tries it wasn’t until the final play of the half that Cal Poly would score a try that would keep them in sight of the Gaels and give the green & gold fans something to cheer about. Having established good possession inside the Gaels territory, Cal Poly were in a threatening position and with a strong skip pass from scrumhalf Thomas Leacox from the base of the ruck it was flyhalf Taylor Honnette who dove into the corner for the try. The unsuccessful conversion attempt left the score at 14-5 to St Mary’s at the break.
Unfortunately for the Mustangs it was that late first half try that would be their only points for the match. St Mary’s stretched their lead in the second half with strong pick and goes at the ruck and some solid counter attack by fullback Cooper Maloney. The final score had St Mary’s on top 36-5.
Jubilation after Honnette scores in the last play of the first half. Photo Karen Drinkwater.
Adding to the pain of the loss for Coach Burnett and the Mustangs was the pain of losing starting flyhalf Taylor Honnette for the season after he suffered a knee injury in the final 10 minutes of the match.
The next weekend for the Mustangs was a San Luis Obispo double header, taking on Santa Clara in week 3 of the D1A league season on Saturday and the might of Cal #2 on Sunday.
Filling the shoes of Honnette, who was the leading try scorer in the Mustangs fall 7s season, was the very experienced senior utility back Alex Frost. Frost who enjoyed 7s success as a scrumhalf/flyhalf also spent time in the pivot role for the Mustangs 1st XV in earlier season matches against ASU and UCSB.
Kelii Dominguez was a standout in attack for the Mustangs against the SCUTs. Photo Leanna Long.
Sending in a mix of youth and experience against the SCUTs, the Mustangs had another rough start to the match. Unfortunately for the home side, it wasn’t the final 10 minutes rather the first 10 of the match that their flyhalf would go down. Frost sustained a hamstring injury from one of the first set pieces of the match that would ensure he would not return to the field for the duration of the weekend.
Confident and energetic, Santa Clara scored first after a string of penalties by the ill-disciplined home side gave the SCUTs field position they did not pass up. Not to be left standing at the gate, Cal Poly bounced straight back with a try of their own to quick stepping fullback Matt Long.
Electric winger Matt Long on his way to the familiar try line. Photo Leanna Long.
Down 8-7 midway through the first half the Mustangs took the lead with a well executed set piece try to home town winger Nate Nunno. Replacement flyhalf Corey McGrillen made no mistake with the conversion as the vocal home crowd cheered the Mustangs on under the sunshine at the Cal Poly Rec Fields.
The SCUTs, however, were in no mood to yield and went back in front with another penalty goal to wing Holmgern followed by a try to flanker O’Hara in the 21st minute of the match. The visitors then charged further ahead when flyhalf Dunne picked up an intercept and raced 50 meters to score next to the posts. The successful conversion gave the visitors an impressive 23-14 lead when the half time whistle blew.
At the beginning of the second half the pressure was firmly on the home side. Having weathered an early SCUTs storm, Cal Poly broke for the first score of the half in 43rd minute. Matt Long counter attacking from his own half fed the ball to his supporting backs who got tackled 20 meters out from the try line. Quick ball from the ensuing ruck and a long pass from lock Joey Cremen gave electric winger Kelii Dominguez room around the covering defense. Dominguez would give the final pass to outside center Derek Morefield who dove in for the try. A tremendous McGrillen conversion from the sideline brought the Mustangs to within two points of the SCUTs.
Taking all points on offer, Santa Clara extended their lead with a three point penalty goal in the 53rd minute of the game.
Leacox crashes in for a try late in the second half. Photo Leanna Long.
Needing a converted try to regain the lead Cal Poly attacking from inside their own quarter advanced the ball down into the visitors half with a well put together attacking move followed by a string of close nit passes to charging green supporting players. This territory and momentum carried the home side to within meters of the try line and when replacement scrumhalf Thomas Leacox took advantage of some distracted SCUTs defenders to crash over line for the try, the score was all tied up at 26 a piece. Another accurate kick from the sideline by Corey McGrillen gave the Mustangs an all but comfortable two point lead in the 63rd minute.
That small lead for the home side would be short lived as the SCUTs reminded Cal Poly they were still in the game as the clawed their way back into the Mustangs quarter. A slight line break and movement from one side of the field to the other was enough to give winger Holmgern room to score in the corner.
After an incredibly tense last five minutes with Cal Poly throwing in wave after wave of attacking plays inside the visitors quarter, Santa Clara got the last referee’s decision of the match to take the game 28-31.
The San Luis Obispo rugby fans saw a great game at the Cal Poly Rec Fields. Photo Leanna Long.
Eager to restore some pride from Saturday’s loss to Santa Clara, Cal Poly was enthusiastic coming into Sunday’s match against #2 ranked Cal Berkeley. The Bears sporting a handful of 2013 All American starters and the current Eagles outside center Seamus Kelly were never going to take the Mustangs lightly and showed their intent to play running rugby from the outset.
Although the 26 time national champions pushed away with two early tries, the Mustangs were building phases and pressure nicely inside visitors half. Then in the 15th minute freshman winger Matt Long, who was a contender for the All American U20s squad to play in the Junior World Trophy in Hong Kong next month, demonstrated his electric footwork and exceptional finishing skills by beating three Cal defenders on his way to the line. Long’s finish was at the end of a pin point Mustang’s move that left defenders in two minds and when new flyhalf Corey McGillen slotted the extra points, Cal Poly were only one try away from the Bears.
Matt Long scoring his second try of the weekend, stepping through the Cal backs. Photo Leanna Long.
Never to be left quiet, Cal bounced straight back, breaking the home side’s resistance with a 50 meter dash started with some fine footwork by outside center Kelly and finished by Adolphus, counting for the visitors their third try of the afternoon.
Although the Mustangs showed patches of defiance, the men from San Luis Obispo could not contain Berkeley’s speed and athleticism out wide and tries continued in a fluid manner for the visitors for the remainder of the match.
The Mustangs backs had a hard day at the office containing current Eagles outside Seamus Kelly. Photo Jan Piper
Cal Poly however secured a consolation try in the 77th minute of the match when replacement winger Derek Morefield crashed over the line to the delight of the home crowd.
Despite the early March set backs, Cal Poly remains in 8th position on the D1A ladder, right in contention for a home play-in match. A win there would give the Mustangs an elite 8 berth against either Californian rivals St Mary’s #1, Life #2, Arkansas St #3 or up and coming athletic program Lindenwood University out of the mid-west.