By Director of Rugby Dominic Riebli
In their final game of the regular season, the USC Men’s Rugby Club traveled to Las Vegas, host city to the American leg of the IRB 7s Series, to take on a Grand Canyon University. Although they had already secured a playoff spot in the Gold Coast Conference, the Trojans needed to achieve at least a double bonus point loss (score four or more tries and keep the margin of defeat to within seven points) in order to maintain their hold on a first or second place finish and a home playoff match. USC achieved their goal and then some; coming back from 21 points down to win 32-31 on a penalty kick in the 77th minute.
With both teams playing in a foreign environment, USC and GCU spent the first 10 minutes of the match feeling each other out and playing for field position. Sophomore Flyhalf Adam Bushell’s penalty kick in the 13th minute gave the Trojans an early 3-0 lead. Unfortunately for USC, that represented their only score for the half as things went from bad to worse for the home side. The Trojans frequently found themselves on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle as Freshman Hooker Oliver Daabo received a yellow card for a swinging arm tackle and Freshman Prop Kian Azizirad got pinged several times for pulling down the scrum. Playing a man-up, Grand Canyon’s sizable pack battered away at the gain line and made several meters after contact. They received their just rewards with tries at the 21st and 30th minutes. 3-12 Antelopes.
USC looked to respond 5 minutes later as the forwards set-up a driving maul from a lineout inside the attacking 22. After the maul collapsed near the goal line, Hooker Daabo picked the ball up from the tackle area and attempted to sneak in on the short side. However, the Xavier High School product knocked-on before touching down, thus giving GCU a scrum on their five meter line. After a couple of possession exchanges on the Antelopes half of the field, GCU had another scrum inside their own 22. Instead of kicking out of their own end, as they had done on the previous sequence, Flyhalf Ben Pensyl passed to Center Ryan Canino. This caught USC off-guard and their defensive line did not attack in unison, thus creating a gap for the Antelopes to exploit. Canino burst through the midfield and had a lot of space to run. Trojan Sophomore Fullback Mitch Suzuki’s cover tackle proved futile as Canino offloaded to Wing Dru Pelter, who took it the rest of the way for a coast-to-coast try. With the conversion the Antelopes increased their lead to 16 points. USC tried to strike back before halftime but an errant pass from Junior 8-man Corbin Bennett went bouncing around the midfield. Canino picked up the loose ball and scored in the corner. 24-3 in favor of the Antelopes.
“We played poorly in that first half; very uninspired,” said USC Head Coach Loa Milford. “My speech was pretty simple: I urged the boys to up the tempo in the second half as it was the only way we could get back in the game. We had so much riding on the outcome of the game (a home playoff match) so it’s not like I needed to remind them. I wouldn’t say that we needed to dig deep and find something extra, we just needed to play with more urgency.”
And play with urgency, they did. From the opening kick, Freshman Flanker Michael Cesar took the game over and made line break after line break. The first came from a turnover near the halfway line. Cesar dashed through the Antelopes pack and sprinted for the posts. GCU Center Canino attempted to make a try-saving tackle but came in too high. Referee Holmquist awarded USC a penalty try and Canino a yellow card. With the Bushell conversion, USC trailed 10-24.
Minutes later, Cesar made another break from deep inside USC territory and got dragged down near the halfway line. With GCU scrambling back to cover defensively, the Trojans needed a quick recycle to continue the momentum and potentially pull themselves back into the game. Unfortunately, Junior Scrumhalf Guido Scassellati attempted a probing run across the midfield, which delayed his offload to his oncoming teammates. GCU Winger Pelter stepped into the passing lane, intercepted the ball, and scored an easy try against the run of play. Pensyl kicked the conversion and put the Antelopes back on top 31-10.
“That play should have crushed us,” said Milford. “We finally started getting some momentum and looked like we were going to get to within 7; then their winger swept in and gave us a dagger. That was literally a 14 point swing.”
Seemingly undeterred, the Trojans answered back with a converted try from Freshman Center Dmitry Veremeenko. Cesar then tallied his second score in the 60th minute. With the conversion, USC found themselves 7 points down with a quarter to play. They still needed to score another try and keep Grand Canyon from scoring if they hoped to hold onto a top spot in the league.
The teams both had scores go begging in the next 10 minutes as goal line defense beat goal line offense. Veremeenko finally dotted down in the corner at the 70 minute mark to give his team the much needed bonus point try. Unfortunately, Bushell missed the extremely important yet extremely difficult conversion, leaving USC down 29-31 with less than 10 minutes to play. A converted try from GCU meant a certain victory and a second place finish for the Antelopes.
Salvation came in the 77th minute as a Grand Canyon were penalized for offside on their own 22-meter line. Keenly aware of the situation, Milford directed Bushell to kick for points. A converted kick would give USC the lead but, more importantly, would almost definitely secure the second bonus point. Bushell’s kick literally squeaked inside the crossbar as it glanced off the upright and through. The penalty gave the Trojans a 32-31 lead, their first since the beginning stages of the match. GCU had a chance to snatch the victory back but a knock-on at fulltime ended the affair.
With the win, USC moved to first place in the Gold Coast Conference with a game in hand over undefeated Long Beach State. Should LBSU falter in their match against Santa Barbara City College, the Trojans would win the regular season.
“It’s quite an accomplishment to go from an ‘also ran’ last year to competing for a regular season title,” said Milford. “We obviously still have business to tend to and have yet to play our best rugby, but I’m happy for the guys right now. When that whistle blew, you could tell that they’d given everything they had. It made me proud.”
USC awaits final results and standings over the next couple of weeks that will determine their playoff opponent. The only certainty for the Trojans is that they will host a playoff match for the first time in many, many years.