The showdown between Life and Arkansas State isn’t over.
Saturday’s game in Marietta, Ga., won by Life 30-14, is just the first half of a home-and-away series that will decide who gets to stay home for the D1-A Quarterfinals, and has to travel.
“We look at it as a 160-minute game,” said Life Director of Rugby Dan Payne. “The tiebreaker is going to be head-to-head, so it could well come down to points difference.”
That’s perhaps why Payne and Scott Lawrence – who was the architect of Life’s superb defensive performance – weren’t all smiles at the end of the game. After showing an unbreachable defensive front for 79 minutes, the Running Eagles let in a try late.
“Every point counts,” said Payne. “I know that, the players know it. Scott, who did such an amazing job getting our defense ready for this game, knows it.”
On the bus home to Jonesboro, Arkansas State Head Coach Matt Huckaby had much to consider, and chose first to look in the mirror.
“They beat us to the rucks,” said the coach. “They were the better team today and mostly they beat us to the breakdown, which left us counter-rucking all day. When you have 80 to 100 rucks in a game, and you consistently don’t make it to the rucks, then you’re going to lose. I take that on as the coach. We needed to work on that more and that’s on me.”
Life gave the game ball to their entire squad, but everyone there saw the game as something of a coming out party for Colton Cariaga. The Life captain and center, who is emerging as a steady, mature voice in the college game showed he can change the course of a contest, as well. His line breaks, his defense, and his vision were there to see for all.
“Colton was amazing,” said Huckaby.
If Payne and Lawrence are thinking about that try by ASU’s James “Trey” Cobble at the end, Huckaby might be thinking about a sequence midway through the second half. At the time, the score was 13-9 for Life. Arkansas State pounded down close to the Life line, but were stopped. Life got a scrum five meters out, secured the ball, and fullback Joe Cowley ran wide, and then booted the ball a mile and a half down field.
That play in itself might have raised the ASU siege, but Cowley was tackled just after he kicked Late hit, said the ref. It was a tough call. Cowley had started a run, and certainly the Red Wolves defenders were thinking they needed to tackle him. Head down, body going forward, it’s hard to stop the train. Cowley’s ball landed 50 meters downfield, well inside the ASU half, and that’s where the penalty was assessed.
Life kicked for touch, lost the ball on a not-straight in the lineout, but then Shawn Potgieter was isolated in the tackling, forcing a penalty that Cowley easily kicked. The entire sequence had turned what might have been a converted try for ASU into a penalty for Life.
Huckaby made no grumbles about the call, but acknowledged the play’s meaning.
“That was huge,” he said. “It was a huge shift in momentum and we were kind of on the back foot for a while. They scored a try right after that and that made it 23-9.”
“Any big play is a big shift in momentum,” added Payne. “We’ll probably have some more next time we play.”