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SaberCats Win Bruising Battle in Humid Houston, 29-12

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1 week ago

Rugby Football Club Los Angeles faced off against the Houston SaberCats at SaberCats Stadium in the Lone Star state on Saturday, June 8, hoping to stay in the Western Conference playoff race with a win against the top team in Major League Rugby.

The early summer, humid Houston weather, with temperatures in the mid-90s, couldn’t stifle the scrappy rugby, with both teams battling back and forth for 80 minutes of exciting, bruising rugby. The SaberCats came away with the win, 29-12.

The SaberCats, the only team to qualify for the playoffs ahead of Saturday’s match, got the first break after the two teams kicked back and forth, taking a quick penalty and darting into RFCLA territory in the third minute but RFCLA No. 8 Semi Kunatani and wing Andrew Coe (No. 14) put on the pressure and forced a knock-on.

In the fourth minute, the SaberCats committed an early error with a lineout throw ruled not straight, but in the 6th minute made up for it with a straight throw-in, a chain of passes out to the back line, a one-handed offload by wing Jeremy Misailegalu (No. 11) to full-back Drew Wild (No. 15) who passed the ball to scrum half Andre Warner (No. 9) for the try. Fly-half David Coetzer (No. 10) missed the conversion but the SaberCats led 5-0 in the 8th minute. Coetzer would control the kicking game in the first half but RFCLA, with multiple players making strategic kicks, would win the battle for territory.

In the 12th minute, RFCLA forced a turnover that led to a lineout in SaberCats territory. RFCLA hooker Ben Strang (No. 2) found captain Matt Heaton (No. 7) with the throw and after a driving maul, RFCLA took the ball towards the try line before the SaberCats forced a turnover. A scuffle ensued but No. 8 Semi Kunatani got off with a warning from the referee and his team was awarded a penalty.

Heading into the match, Kunatani was in sixth place in the league with 786 meters from 126 carries, an average of 6.2 meters per carry. He was ranked No. 2 with 8 tries scored. But RFCLA led the league with 16 yellow cards and was averaging 12.3 penalties per match.

RFCLA fly-half Jason Emery (No. 10) took a quick tap penalty and passed the ball to an energized Kunatani who ran straight at the SaberCats pack. Moments later, he served up one of his famous offloads to Strang for the try. Emery made the conversion from near the sideline to give RFCLA a 7-5 lead.

RFCLA couldn’t stop a SaberCats lineout followed by a maul in the 18th minute and the ref awarded a penalty try. The conversion made it 12-7, SaberCats.

RFCLA prop Alex Maughan (No. 3) received a yellow card, giving the home team a one-mad advantage for the next 10 minutes. The SaberCats then forced an RFCLA error inside their own half, and Coetzer picked up the loose ball. He found open space, running more than 50 meters for the try. His conversion made it 19-7 in the 20th minute. RFCLA had conceded four penalties to the SaberCats’ three.

In the 28th minute, Kunatani bolted through the SaberCats’ line twice and delivered two offloads to his backs, giving RFCLA the momentum as Maughan returned to the pitch. A Heaton run straight into the SaberCats pack kept RFLC moving forward one meter at a time. After another Kunatani run, Emery crossed the try line but was held up.

A video review found SaberCats inside center Louritz van der Schyff (No. 12) guilty of head-to-head contact about 15 meters away from the try line. His yellow card would leave the home team down a man for the remainder of the first half. The SaberCats stole a lineout in the 31st minute, and RFCLA lost another a minute later, squandering their chances. The SaberCats put the ball back in RFCLA territory with a Coetzer kick.

A burst by RFCLA outside center Will Leonard (No. 13) in the 33rd minute took RFCLA back into their opponents’ half. A kick by substitute forward Max Katjijeko, followed by a perfect Strang lineout on the 5-meter line and a maul led to a try by lock Jason Damm (No. 4), his seventh of the season. Emery missed the conversion but RFCLA had cut the SaberCats’ lead, 19-12.

In the 39th minute RFCLA kicked the ball into the SaberCats try zone but scrum-half Tas Smith (No. 9) couldn’t chase it down. The SaberCats stopped a Katjijeko burst and offload to Damm in the 40th minute.

Going into the half, both teams — who have averaged four tries per match this season — showed few signs of slowing down. RFCLA had controlled 70 percent of territory, 57 percent of possession, and had made 45 tackles to the SaberCats 76. RFCLA’s Damm is currently ranked third in the league in tackles, with 150.

HALFTIME

In the 49th minute, the referee ruled that a shoulder-to-head tackle by Bruce Kauika-Peterson warranted a red card, and the SaberCats extended their lead with the penalty kick, making it a 22-12 match.

The SaberCats would have a one-man advantage for 20 minutes, as the tempo of the match slowed in the heat. In the 51st minute, RFCLA’s Henry Speight (No. 22) came on for his MLR debut, replacing wing Jack Shaw (No. 11); Wilton Rebolo (No. 16) replaced prop. Dane Zander (No. 1) and Conor Young (No. 18) came in for Maughan.

The substitutes helped RFCLA slow the SaberCats down, as the backs combined with the forwards to create opportunities. Damm forced a turnover in the 65th minute to keep his team’s momentum going, and a kicking battle slowed the game down as RFCLA waited for their player to return after the 20-minute red card period. RFCLA held the SaberCats at bay and following another Kunatani burst in the 70th minute, substitute forward Bruce Yun (No. 19) came on to give RFCLA a full side again.

Penalties hurt the SaberCats chances in the second half, but they would cost RFCLA the match, with Emery going off with a yellow card in the 74th minute after Damm made a try-saving tackle. A penalty try after a foul by Damm earned him a yellow and gave the SaberCats a 29-12 lead with 5 minutes left.

Exciting playmaking by RFCLA’s substitutes — several of whom were making their MLR debuts — couldn’t turn the match around, and the SaberCats held them off for the win.

After the match, RFCLA’s Damm said that the scoreline didn’t “reflect how it felt.”

“We showed fight all the way through, and it came down to some errors and discipline,” he said. “We were on the wrong side of that and it came back to hurt us in the end.”

Damm hopes he and his teammates can deliver for their fans in the final stretch of the season. “It’s all about heart for the rest of the year, the fellas giving it their all, fighting for each other,” he said. “We want to finish on a high note [and] carry that energy into next season.”

RFCLA now have a 4-8-1 record. Their next match, the last at home this season, is on June 16, against the New Orleans Gold at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. Kickoff is at 3 pm local time (PST).

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