The LA Giltinis suffered their first loss at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when upset 21-20 in the dying stages by NOLA Gold on Sunday night.
The Giltinis squandered a 14-0 lead against a NOLA outfit which was more desperate when it counted with their Major League Rugby play-off hopes on the line.
A penalty goal from centre Seru Vularika had given the Giltinis a 20-16 lead at the 74-minute mark but a third and deciding lead change was still to come.
Down to 14 men with a player in the sin bin, NOLA surged on attack and winger Hanno Dirksen plunged over out wide for the match-winning try two minutes from full-time.
It was a numbing conclusion on the Fourth of July for the Giltinis, who had entered the match with a spotless 5-0 record at the Coliseum and a 6-0 slate on home turf in Los Angeles.
The Giltinis still sit on top of the MLR standings with a clear advantage through an 11-3 record (56 points).
The team needs five points from the two remaining regular season games against Austin Gilgronis (July 10) at the Coliseum and Utah Warriors (July 17) on the road to guarantee home ground advantage in the play-offs.
The 10-4 Rugby ATL (51) and 9-5 Warriors (51) can still wrestle a potential home ground advantage for the play-offs with two bonus-point wins and a Giltinis’ slip-up.
“That was a very disappointing night. The club put on a great event with the Fourth of July fireworks but we just didn’t deliver on the field,” head coach Darren Coleman said.
“Credit to NOLA. They ran hard at us all night and won the contacts.
“We were our own worst enemy at the end by dropping a kick-off, letting them roll over us for the late try and showing no gusto to chase our last kick-off.
“We have a six-day turnaround before we host a hungry Austin team so we will get to work. Five points from that game and we are where we want to be for the play-offs.”
Giltinis captain Dave Dennis (below) led from the front in the first half.
The 35-year-old lock has been a real ironman this season.
Dennis was in everything. He stole lineouts, he delivered several crunching hits, he scored a try and drove prop Marco Fepulea’i over for his.
For all of NOLA’s earnest early work, a Dennis lineout steal and a Pago Haini turnover at the tackle twice scuttled the visitors when they were within 10m of the Giltinis’ tryline.
The Giltinis made NOLA pay for their poor execution by showing how it should be done at the 13-minute mark.
The Giltinis won a lineout seven metres out, advanced the ball with purpose so that a ruck was formed on the tryline. Dennis stooped for the ball and needed only to shift it a further handspan to dot down for the first try.
The Giltinis pinched a lineout which prop Fepulea’i turned into a pick-and-drive try for 14-0 after 21 minutes.
NOLA chipped away with two Carl Meyer penalty goals before influential winger Joeli Tikoisuva peeled off the edge of a mini-maul, found clear space ahead and dash to score.
NOLA had gone on an unanswered 16-0 surge when Meyer kicked his third penalty goal just before the hour mark for a 16-14 edge.
Flyhalf Matt Giteau’s penalty goal response for 17-16 seemed to correct the listing ship because replacements Mahe Vailanu, JP Smith, Harrison Goddard and Sean O’Brien all made an instant difference.
A Billy Meakes intercept and a pinpoint Giteau kick to force a 5m scrum could have been decisive shortly after but scrumhalf Goddard was held-up just short of the tryline.
NOLA’s clutch defence kept them in the game and gave them the final chance to score through Dirksen with their most clinical raid of the game.
NOLA GOLD 21
Try: Joeli Tikoisuva (54), Hanno Dirksen (77)
Conversion: Carl Meyer (55)
Penalty goals: Carl Meyer (37, 51, 58)
LA GILTINIS 20
Tries: Dave Dennis (13 min), Marco Fepulea’i (21)
Conversions: Matt Giteau (13, 21)
Penalty goals: Matt Giteau (60), Seru Vularika (74)
Half-time: 14-3 Giltinis
Venue: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum