Gaels Title As Easy As 6, 7, 8, 9

While everyone had a hand in it, perhaps Saint Mary's DIA championship run was a simple as 6-7-8-9.

The Gaels' back row, plus MVP scrumhalf Holden Yungert, sparked the 30-24 victory over Life last Saturday and finished off a season that featured only one loss to a college opponent.

For captain Kevin O'Connor -- No. 6 in that equation -- it was a gratifying, and harrowing, experience.

The flanker was a force throughout the season, and while he played exceedingly well, he also had some decisions to make as captain.

"Looking back to the BYU game at their place, that was a huge learning experience for all of us," O'Connor told FloRugby. "There was a moment in the final where we were in a similar situation as in the BYU game."

Trailing Life 24-16, the Gaels had a penalty that in most instances they would have used to kick to the corner and score a try. But this was a championship game against a strong Life defense, and O'Connor knew there was plenty of time to come back -- if they didn't panic.

"We could either kick to the corner, or try to go for points," O'Connor said. "If you'd given me that choice a couple of months ago, I would have said go for the lineout. I knew our drives were working off our lineouts. But when you've got someone with a boot like Dylan's, you can't pass that up."

That would be fullback Dylan Audsley, who scored a try, kicked a conversion, and made six penalties on the day. In fact, fans could see O'Connor and Audsley discussing what to do on one penalty situation.

"Dylan and I are super close, and he trusts me and I trust him," O'Connor said. "So I said to him, 'What do you think?' We had some time because the ref was having a chat to one of the Life guys. We had some time to think about it, and Mike McCarthy came over and offered some input and that's how it went. We decided we would kick for points and keep coming back. And I had full confidence in Dylan. If we decide to go for goal, I think he's going to hit it."

It was the right move, for sure, as Audsley kicked that penalty and two more to put Saint Mary's ahead 25-24 before a final, crucial try.

Along with O'Connor's decision-making, there was plenty to be proud of among those players. Gaels No. 8 Vili Helu dislocated his shoulder two minutes into the game. It was popped back in, and Helu played a massive game, making key breaks and several tackles, until he eventually sustained another shoulder injury and had to go off.

Alex Barton was monstrous at openside flanker, putting in a full day's work as a fairly unsung (although GRR sang about him a bit) hero on this team. Barton struggled in his early days at Saint Mary's but ended up scoring a crucial try in the Gaels' 2014 title win. Somehow, after that, things began to click.

Barton was brilliant and had to leave injured (despite his protestations).

"He said, 'I don't want to come off,'" O'Connor said. "I know he wanted to finish out the game. But we've got depth. Ronan Murphy comes off the bench as a freshman, Marcus Viscardi, Peter Walden -- you put them in, there's no dropoff."

O'Connor, who played through to the final whistle, has shown time and again that he will bring the big play at the end of the game, and many others, from Jack Carso to Mike McCarthy to Aaron Matthews to Henry Hall to Payton Talea have done the same. In this instance, O'Connor was there to help Yungert be the hero. It all started with a scrum in the middle of the field with Saint Mary's leading 25-24.

"With these games we crate a bit of a scouting report, and we realized that sometimes they like to drop their wing back and they're expecting us to go to the open side and get around the corner," O'Connor said. "So we called a weakside scrum move. It was a great strike by [hooker] Ethan [Waller], and you need that so you can get out quickly and get around their flanker. The ball just kind of squirted out and their No. 9 went on a drift because he had to honor Holden. I got around their flanker."

And then O'Connor took off, lumbering downfield and suddenly only had one man to beat.

"I heard Holden screaming, and that was good because I don't know if I could go all the way," O'Connor said. "We talk about visualizing plays like that. I hadn't expected to b at No. 8 because I'd expected Vili to be there. But I also remember this play last year where I got a break and I outran my support and got caught for a penalty. So going into that game was one of the things I was thinking about."

In a perfectly executed two-on-one, O'Connor slowed sightly, kept the ball in two hands, and popped it to Yungert to swan dive in for the try.

Yungert got the try and the accolades, but it wasn't just that try that earned him MVP honors. He was in the middle of it all. He was the guy battling to get that ball out -- that two-second ball as he talked about last week. With so much going on around the rucks, someone had to make sense of it, and that was Yungert.

His try gave the Gaels a 30-24 lead, and if they scored the conversion, an eight-point would have pretty much put the game away. However, Audsley forgot to ask to be allowed to rest the ball on the final conversion and was too close to the posts anyway, leaving the game within six points and time left on the clock.

O'Connor wondered … "Am I going to be the captain who, two years in a row, that coughs the thing up? The more you think about just doing your job and putting guys in the best position possible, and all the conditioning in the fall, you start to calm yourself down. In a way it was ideal.

"It was the epitome of our season -- how much defense we play and how much we trust each other to play defense and not panic. Another three or four minutes of defense, playing together as a team, it didn't seem like much."

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