The Life Running Eagles played their second barnburner in a national final at Infinity Park in as many weeks, this time emerging 27-26 winners over Old Puget Sound Beach and DI National Champions.
“It’s a bit of a Cinderella story,” said Life hooker and coach James Isaacson. “What a difference a week makes.”
The Running Eagles have played an awful lot of rugby lately. They played twice this weekend, against SFGG in the Elite Cup final last week, and that’s after going through the gauntlet that is the DI playoffs. They played largely the same lineup the last two weekends, not having the luxury of sitting guys on Saturday in preparation for Sunday.
“We were punch drunk. The past five weeks we’ve played five top-end teams and who would have given us a chance today?” Isaacson added.
OPSB, on the other hand, was playing with a handful of sets of fresh legs, as they sat quite a few guys in the semifinal against NOLA. At halftime, the separation between the teams was only two points, and in the second half, it was Life that pulled away.
At the onset of the game, Life got a penalty directly after the kickoff well in OPSB’s end, but instead of kicking for the corner and mauling in after the lineout, flyhalf AJ MacGinty decided to cross kick for his wing. The ball was secured, but Life turned it over shortly thereafter.
OPSB tried to clear its lines, but failed, leaving Life with the ball deep in their end. A few phases later, MacGinty took the smart choice after a penalty and went for posts. 3-0 Life. MacGinty extended the lead shortly thereafter with another kick – 6-0.
OPSB made a foray into Life’s end with big runs from Mike Palefau and Miles Craigwell, and after several phases the OPSB pack smashed over the tryline from meters away. Matt Trouville converted, putting the Seattle club up 7-6.
The pattern continued on a positive note for Life – they pressured OPSB, and were rewarded with a kickable penalty. This infringement, for slowing the ball down at the ruck, resulted in a yellow card for Ifereimi Naruma. MacGinty slotted the kick, putting Life back ahead at 9-7.
The Running Eagles got another kickable penalty in the 23rd minute, when Emosi Vucago was playing the ball on the ground. But Life chose to go for the corner instead, and were held up in the try zone.
OPSB caught a break when Life punted to Mike Palefau. He passed to Emosi Vecago, who chipped over the Life defensive line, caught the ball and dished to Miles Craigwell, who took it the rest of the way for a try. Trouville hit the touch line conversion to put OPSB ahead 14-9.
Moments later, Life charged into OPSB’s end and were given a penalty directly in front of the posts when an OPSB player played the ball from and egregiously offside position. Life took the aggressive option again, going for the lineout, and No. 8 Benji Goff dove in off the maul. MacGinty missed the conversion – 14-14 in the 34th minute.
Though Life left a couple of penalties on the board, Isaacson backed the game plan of going for tries.
“We always back ourselves in the drive in the lineout. That’s no secret,” he said. “Everyone knows that as well, but I felt that getting ahead, the mental factor that provided really provided an amount of interest that we hadn’t had in previous games…It really was key to get ahead, and it paid off.”
Before the half, Life netted one more penalty and maybe the largest outside center in DI Club Championship history, OPSB’s Willie Rasileka, ran in a try, bringing the score to 19-17 at intermission.
OPSB nearly scored a try at the onset of the second half when Kevin Swiryn crossed over untouched, but the pass that put him away was deemed forward.
Life crossed into the attacking end after about 10 minutes of the half gone, following a nifty run from Zach Simkins and an offload to Clint Whittler. OPSB openside Kellen Gordon was pinged for a penalty at the breakdown and shown a yellow card. MacGinty put up three points, regaining the lead for Life – 20-19.
OPSB lock Aaron Fry joined Gordon in the bin for stamping, and Life kicked to the corner and easily mauled over Seattle’s lightened pack for a try. Garrett Lambert was credited for the score, extending Life’s lead to 27-19.
OPSB appeared unable to get out of its way, giving up two penalties in its own end in the 68th minute. Life kicked to the corner and formed a maul both times. But this time Beach’s defense repelled the Running Eagles efforts, eventually forcing a knock-on, and Fry came back on to put OPSB at full strength.
OPSB continued in a positive manner when Emosi Vucago forced a holding on penalty to be called on Life, quick-tapped and passed out to Rasileka. The massive Fijian cut through the defense and carried the ball 40 meters before passing to Craigwell, who went the rest of the way. Trouville converted, pulling Beach to within one at 27-26 with under four minutes to play.
Life was trying to milk the clock and doing a good job of it, but a penalty at midfield for hands-in gave Beach a shot with under a minute left. Beach was working its way up the field, until reserve Life prop Demecus Beach ripped the ball from Rasileka’s grasp. Life cleared to touch one phase later, ending the game 27-26.
For Isaacson, the title-winning match was his last. The former Premiership pro is graduating, moving back home and retiring from rugby to his chiropractic practice. He’s been coaching with Life for six years.
“Its’ been a long time coming. I’ve had some heartbreaks in my career, I’ve had some great successes in my career when I was a professional, and it is a bit of a swan song, a bit of a Cinderella story and I’m speechless at the moment. It’s still yet to sink in,” said Isaacson.
“I’ve played with some of the best players in the world, household names in the rugby community, and I class these guys right up there with them.”
Top of that class might have to be AJ MacGinty, who scored 37 points in two days at Infinity, was named MVP. He slotted five penalties and a conversion in the final.
“He’s definitely one of the finds of the season. He’s been a key individual for us. I’m very, very pleased he’s playing with us,” said Isaacson. “There’s no doubt he’ll get probably some Eagle involvement when he gets eligible in a few years. I think they’re keen on that, and why not?”
Tries: Goff, Lambert
Pens: MacGinty (5)
Tries: Craigwell (2), Naruma, Rasileka
Cons: Trouville (3)