A stunning two-try burst from winger Ryan James (pictured above) has booked the LA Giltinis a spot in next Sunday’s Major League Rugby Championship final.
The Giltinis rallied late for a thrilling 17-13 win over the Utah Warriors on Sunday afternoon to take the Western Conference final at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
With under four minutes to play, replacement winger James stepped over on a 30m run down the blindside that was cleverly engineered by scrumhalf Harrison Goddard (below).
Home ground advantage will be a huge plus again for the Championship final from 1pm (PT) when riding the vocal support of local fans against rivals Rugby ATL.
“There’s so much belief amongst this group of guys in a tight finish and our youngest player, ‘RJ’, really stepped up. We’re off to the big dance,” enthused standout centre Billy Meakes.
“You could feel the energy of our home fans and we want to bring a trophy to Los Angeles.”
The Giltinis were forced to dig deeper than they have all season in the final 15 minutes to come from behind against the Warriors.
The Warriors had gone on a 13-0 run to lead 13-7 with 13 minutes to play and the Giltinis had to find something extra with playmaker Matt Giteau off the field injured.
Experienced winger DTH van der Merwe earned a penalty with hands on Warriors' ball at the tackle and replacement flyhalf Luke Carty banged a kick to the touchline 15m out.
The Giltinis surged with a succession of pick-and-drives to get within a hand-span of the tryline before Goddard zipped a wide pass to James.
James used his footwork to get over the line and his determination to wriggle through two defenders to plant the ball for his first try.
When goalkicker Luke Burton hit the upright with his conversion attempt it still left work to do at 13-12 behind.
James (below) was only on the field for 28 minutes but he made an even bigger play at the death to earn the Giltinis a spot in the Championship final in their first year as an MLR club.
The 21-year-old from San Diego has been one of the Giltinis’ biggest improvers all season.
Goddard, James and Meakes were outstanding in the backs while props Charlie Abel and Marco Fepulea’i did a fine job in neutralising the Warriors’ scrum.
The match had a real play-off intensity in the first half with heavy defence from both sides.
Head coach Darren Coleman had stressed all week that the Giltinis had to improve their defence when Utah set themselves for attacking mauls off lineouts.
Three times in the first half, the resilient LA defence resisted the Warriors when the visitors took penalty kicks for touch and tried to find points from mauls.
The Giltinis had never been in an armwrestle at 0-0 at the 30-minute mark in their debut season.
They kept building the pressure and finally it was strike centre Meakes who spied a weakness in the Warriors’ edge-of-ruck defence.
He stepped past Warriors scrumhalf Michael Baska and into open space. Hardworking lock Luke White backed up in support.
The quick ruck ball to follow was relayed expertly through the hands of forwards Christian Poidevin, Corey Thomas and Dave Dennis to outside centre Adam Ashley-Cooper. The former Wallaby star sliced infield to score which gave Giteau an easier angle for the conversion and a 7-0 lead.
It was a belated lead for LA after the Television Match Official (TMO) denied winger John Ryberg a try after six minutes when the final Burton pass was ruled narrowly forward.
The Warriors closed the score to 7-6 early in the second half when flyhalf Hagen Schulte slotted his second penalty goal.
The Giltinis rued four lost lineouts in the first half but the flipside was inspirational skipper Dave Dennis stealing one Warriors’ throw to thwart a dangerous attacking position and disrupting several more.
A victory of such character and fight is a huge confidence booster for the climax against Rugby ATL, who won through to the final with a 10-9 win over Rugby United New York on Saturday
Tries: Ryan James (67, 76), Adam Ashley-Cooper (34 min)
Conversion: Matt Giteau (34)
UTAH WARRIORS 13
Try: Sama Mololo (58)
Conversion: Hagen Schulte (58)
Penalty goals: Hagen Schulte (40, 48)
Half-time: 7-3 Giltinis
Venue: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum