By Tim Pickwell
The sporting landscape is littered with contests that never match up to the pre-game hype (think, most Super Bowls, the recent BCS National Championship, or, if you’re really old, Billie Jean King v. Bobby Riggs in 1973. Kids: you can look that up. Largest audience to ever see a tennis match in US.)
Saturday’s contest between two of the best and unbeaten High School Rugby sides in Southern California garnered national attention, as Washington-based Rugby Magazine posted up an on-line preview of the match between Torrey Pines (4-0) and Cathedral Catholic (4-0). Both teams featured current or former High School All-Americans (Billy Maggs for Torrey Pines; Drew Gaffney and Aaron Mitchell for Cathedral), both teams were scoring juggernauts with stout defenses. The winner would have the inside track for the Southern California Youth Rugby High School Division South Championship.
Add in the natural rivalry between the public and private high schools that are two miles apart on Del Mar Heights Road, and well, . . . the local Rugby community was abuzz.
But, would the game live up to the hype?
It was better.
Cathedral came out strong and used its impressive size to push Torrey Pines back up against its own try line (that’s a “goal line” in gridiron-speak). Torrey Pines spent the next 15 minutes playing in the shadow of its own goal post as Cathedral pounded away, trying to break through.
Torrey Pines hadn’t pushed the ball past their own 40-yard line, let alone past mid-field, while Cathedral stayed in control, pressuring the Torrey Pines defense with an onslaught of strong runs for a full quarter-of-an-hour. The Dons had controlled a match—dominated it really—but ended up with nothing to show for it.
“We fumbled the opening kickoff and Cathedral went to work. Their size and will were impressive. Fortunately, we worked on team defense all week in practice and the boys played it perfectly. We must’ve made 30 or 40 tackles in the first 15 minutes,” said Torrey Pines Head Coach Matty Sandoval. “The intensity got everyone’s heads into the game.”
Finally, Torrey Pines Center Chase Pickwell busted free for a run that got the ball past mid-field. A Maggs pooch-kick took it to the 15-yard line. Another Pickwell run, a hand-off to junior Flanker Jacob Neeley, a quick flip, and a few seconds later, Dean Karam was over the line with the first score. Torrey Pines, 7-0 after an Alec Mills kick.
Neeley, an all-around talent on offense and defense, is a rookie in only his second month of Rugby. The Torrey Pines coaches named him “Man of the Match” for his all-around play.
Cathedral continued to utilize its substantial size advantage to dominate the line-outs (throw in from out of bounds), but Torrey Pines more than held its own in the scrums. The two rookie props, Grant McGahey and Miles Ahles, proved that technique and fitness can easily offset size, even in the front row.
In the 20th minute, Torrey Pines’ speedy wing Michael Cahill finally got the ball and broke free down the sideline, pitching to Maggs who beat the Cathedral fullback for the score. Cathedral was now down 14-0 after another Mills conversion.
Torrey Pines Captain Pickwell then used an effective stiff arm to break free for a 35-yard try a few minutes later. Torrey Pines took a 19-0 lead into the half.
That must have been an inspired half-time speech by Cathedral Coach Glenn Irvine. The Dons went right to work after the break. Center Xavier Ulutu used his substantial (6’ 1”, 215 LB) size and strength to bull his way in for a try with 5 minutes gone. With the kick good, the score stood at, 19-7.
Sixteen minutes into the half, a busy #8 (Rugby jersey numbers correspond to the position played) Drew Gaffney scored off a 5-meter penalty to pull the Dons to 19-14. #8 is like a linebacker/full-back in the middle of the 15-man action. A lot of ball handling, a whole lot of tackling for Gaffney, who played on a USA Juniors HS All-American Team last summer in England.
Cathedral kept pressing and kept control of the ball for the second half. “It felt like they had it 9 minutes for every one of ours,” said Pickwell. In a short while, Torrey Pines found itself playing in its own try zone (a.k.a., “end zone.”) An attempted quick punt by Torrey Pines from inside the try zone was blocked by Cathedral’s Chris Franke who recovered the ball for the try. With the successful PAT (worth 2 points in Rugby), the match was tied, 19-19, with ten minutes left.
“In rivalry games there is always a gut check time, and when Cathedral tied the score it was ours,” said Coach Sandoval. “It was time to see what these guys were made of.”
Torrey Pines Rugby practices Tuesday and Thursday under the tutelage of some of the top coaches in Southern California—former USD Star Sandoval, former All-American and USA Eagle Bill “Chief” Leverse, international professionals Allen Andrews, Dan Dorsey and Damien Fantongia. But, Wednesdays are voluntary conditioning with ex-Green Beret, Bob McDonald.
Those voluntary conditioning sessions with the Green Beret may have paid off.
After being pushed around most of the game, the smaller, lighter Torrey Pines props and forwards found their rhythm with a few minutes left. They were quicker to support a tackled teammate, and rather than passing the ball quickly to the faster backs, the front line took it upon themselves to pound straight ahead into the teeth of the Dons’ Defense. The larger Cathedral line was a tad slow to get back, clearly winded, hands on hips.
First it was Karam with a line plunge. When he went down, the forwards “rucked over” to protect him and reclaim the ball. Then it was Pierre Pretorius rumbling ahead. Then, Senior Ahles when Pretorius was tackled. Line plunge, tackle, ruck. Rinse. Repeat. Grant McGahey ploughed forward after Ahles was downed, and finally, Hooker AJ Talman with the final charge, carrying two Cathedral players on his back, for the winning try with 4 minutes remaining.
Final, Torrey Pines 26, Cathedral Catholic, 19.
“It was a great contest,” said Cathedral’s Irvine. “But, we were missing five guys. Aaron Mitchell was out with an injured shoulder, Joey Kuperman was on a college football recruiting visit, 3 guys were out with the flu. But, a great game.”
Irvine is looking forward to a potential semi-final rematch in a few weeks, when he hopes to field the full squad, including his starting Wing who separated his shoulder the first week of the season and won’t return for two more weeks. Torrey Pines will counter with star Forward Michael Cox (out with the flu) and will answer the bell once again, and those who come to watch will surely be in for another sporting treat.