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Life West Gladiators v. Austin Blacks – Saturday, May 6th, 2017

This past weekend our Gladiators traveled to Austin, Texas to face the second place team from the Red River, the Austin Blacks, in a Division I repechage match. The game was a rematch of last year’s National Semifinal between the Austin Blacks and the Life West Gladiators, and both teams were eager for another chance to test their fortitude on the Austin Blacks’ home pitch.

Off the kickoff, the ball was cleared and the Gladiators earned a lineout in the Blacks’ 22. A long throw in lead to a maul 20 meters from the Austin line, and the Gladiator forwards charged forward with little resistance, with hooker Jay Finau picking up the first try of the day . First-five Gui Cazenave easily slotted the conversion and the Gladiators stepped out to an early 7 – 0 lead.

In the 11th minute, the Blacks worked their way into the Gladiator half, stringing together several phases towards the goal line. The Life West defense held firm, and earned the turnover off an unplayable ruck. The ball was sent wide from the ensuing scrum to fullback Tyler Harrison, who took it to the halfway line. Quick ball was achieved, and a few phases later right wing Leki Latu took it up and offloaded to Harrison, who streaked down the right side, drew two defenders, and put a deft grubber inside to scrumhalf Devereaux Ferris to score under the posts. Cazenave again handled the conversion, and the score was 14 – 0 after 14 minutes.

Off the kickoff, eightman Maka Tameilau broke three tackles and burst upfield, sending it wide to wing Latu before the ball was lost in the tackle on the Blacks 5m line; it would be one of many linebreaks that Tameilau would have on the day. The Blacks were powerless against the Gladiators’ intensity in the opening period; their defense was unable to cope with the lightning-quick ball off the Gladiator rucks, and were on the back foot due to consistent gainline success through hard running by Tameilau, Harrison, centre Siaosi Latu, and others.

After a break at the 20th minute for water under the hot Texas sun, the Blacks were able to find some composure and made a strong push into the Gladiator half, and earned a penalty 35m out from the posts. They elected for goal, but it was sent just wide off the posts. Life was unable to clear their half, and the Blacks soon had possession again. A few high tackles in quick succession lead to prop Hulaholo Moungaloa sent to the bin for ten minutes. The Blacks elected to find touch and take the lineout 5m from the Gladiator goaline. The Gladiator defense again held firm against the Blacks’ onslaught, and again turned the ball over. However, they were unable to clear their lines, and the ensuing Black scrum lead to a pick-and-go try in the 28th minute after eight phases on the Gladiator line.

In the 31st minute, a Life West scrum on halfway lead to front-foot ball from Lata, and a burst by center Moni Tongauiha splintered the Austin defense. Two phases later, Tongauiha received the pass from Ferris, spotted a hole in the Blacks defense, and scored under the posts for a 21 – 7 lead with six minutes remaining in the first half.

Austin were able to tack on two penalties in return, closing the gap to 21 – 13. Off the kickoff, the Blacks sent the ball back down the field, where it was taken by left wing Anthony Muñoz on halfway, who drew his man before passing to Tameilau who shattered the Austin line with ease and passed to fullback Harrison for a try and the Gladiator’s fourth on the stroke of half time.

Half time: Life West 28 – 13 Austin Blacks

After the break, it was the Blacks who got on the board first in the second period with a penalty in front of the posts. A few minutes later, Life had a lineout on the halfway line, and a brilliant throw by Finau allowed a strong platform for the backs to run, and center Lata again broke the line for an effective first-phase attack. A few phases later, the ball was moved wide past the covering defense for the try by wing Latu and a commanding 33 – 16 lead at 48’.

The next ten saw a struggle for possession between the two teams, and it was not until the 57th minute that the deadlock was broken through a quick-tap try by the Blacks for a 33 – 21 score. Our Gladiators had a chance to respond five minutes later with a 5m lineout in the Austin half, but despite several phases of continuous attack were unable to convert. The Blacks showed some resolve and had ten minutes of solid attack in the Life West half, and were rewarded with another try in the 65th minute for their efforts and a close 33 – 28 scoreline.

The closing period of the match was tense, with only one try separating the teams. The Blacks attempted to attack out of their own half through a wide-to-wide pattern, but the Gladiator defense held firm and earned a penalty on the Austin 22m with one minute to go. Cazenave remained cool under pressure and slotted the penalty to put the Gladiators up two scores and put the game beyond Austin’s reach. Austin recovered the ball in the past period of play, but were stopped on halfway and held up in the tackle to seal the win for the Gladiators.

Full time: Life West Gladiators 36 – 28 Austin Blacks

The win was achieved through resolute defense and work off the ball, especially by the Gladiator tight five – props Fancy Namulauulu & Huluholo Moungaloa, hooker Jay Finau, and locks John Thomas & Alex Pedjase. “I think we got our attitudes right,” said Life West coach Adriaan Ferris when asked what sparked the turnaround from last year’s disappointing loss. “We made sure that we focused on attacking the Blacks up front. We knew that we’d have to attack them in certain areas and we did that well. We came out of the gates quickly and were pretty effective in the first half.”

With the win, Life West’s championship dreams are still alive as it draws the Pacific South victor, Belmont Shore, in the West National Quarterfinals in Tucson, Ariz. on May 20th. Life West last faced – and defeated – Belmont Shore during this year’s Cal Cup. “We know they’re a quality side and that they’re very well coached,” said Ferris. “They have some very big ball carriers in the forward pack and some very hard-working backs. We’ve got to make sure we look after a possession when we have it and make sure we play smart against them. Whatever plan we go into with against Belmont, we want to make sure we stick with it because when we do we can be pretty effective.”

Match updates for the National Playoff games will be posted to the Life West Rugby Facebook page and to Twitter @GladiatorRugby.