A superb display as a makeshift flanker from Billy Meakes highlighted the grit and courage needed for Sunday’s win against the odds by the LA Giltinis.
The injury-ravaged Giltinis overcame the late loss of four frontline starters and a 10-0 deficit to defeat the San Diego Legion 19-13 on the road at Torrero Stadium.
It may well prove the most significant win of the Giltinis’ pacesetting 10-2 season because it was fight not flash which showed the backbone of the new club.
“That was awesome…it’s the happiest our change room has been all season,” head coach Darren Coleman enthused.
“Billy put his hand up to do a tough job because we’d basically run out of flankers and he won our best-and-bravest team award.
“We’d lost games like this earlier in the season on the road. To win a championship you need depth in your squad and heart and both came to the fore in this one against a desperate and very good San Diego side playing for their season.”
Centre Meakes was drafted into the unfamiliar role of openside flanker because Christian Poidevin was injured and Harry McNulty was in Monaco guiding Ireland’s sevens team to Olympic qualification.
A try-double by bulldozing winger John Ryberg converted the huge play from Meakes that got the Giltinis back into the match.
Just before half-time, the Giltinis were 10-0 down and reduced to 14 men with flyhalf Luke Carty in the sin bin for tackling a player in the air.
Meakes took charge with a bumping 10m run that shrugged off two defenders and fed Ryberg (below) for a much-needed try less than two minutes from half-time to reduce the damage to 10-5.
At the 76-minute mark, the Giltinis clung to a 19-13 lead when defending desperately in front of their goalposts as the Legion rolled towards a telling score.
Meakes zeroed in with perfect position over the ball at the tackle like he’d been watching David Pocock or Richie McCaw all his life. He earned a penalty, his fourth of that style for the game.
The relief was palpable on the faces of the jubilant Giltinis’ players as they hung on to win the “California Derby” and maintain their No.1 spot on the Major League Rugby standings.
There were heroes across the field for the Giltinis who lost Poidevin, prop JP Smith, flyhalf Matt Giteau and winger DTH van der Merwe as their injury toll climbed at the back end of the week. In all, there were six starters missing from the previous game.
Carty’s line kicking was supreme with two 70m efforts to gain territory and his final, angled conversion which meant breathing space after poor three-from-seven goalkicking overall from the Irish American and Luke Burton.
Lock Dave Dennis ruled the lineouts, fullback Glenn Bryce was dangerous as a runner, flanker Angus Cottrell was the steel for the pack and scrumhalf Harrison Goddard ignited the play of the game.
The SOS for reinforcements extended to winger Adam Channel being called up from the Belmont Shore rugby club at Long Beach. He shared the high by doing his bit as a starting winger in his MLR debut.
Even though the Giltinis’ scrum was on the back foot throughout, there was grit up front to play the entire second half without scrum rock Charlie Abel (ankle).
Replacement props Sione Tuihalamaka and Marco Fepulae’i stepped up and deserved to gulp from the California Derby trophy that was filled with Gilly’s Lager in the dressing room.
The Legion still led 13-12 at the 71-minute mark when Goddard struck. He sized up the shortside of the ruck, dashed 25m himself and found Ryberg in perfect position.
The big Texan with the bowling ball reputation still had plenty of work to do. He bumped through former Springbok Joe Pietersen without losing stride and brushed through two more would-be tacklers to score the most valuable try of a season that gets better and better for him.
The character to the Giltinis’ defence was excellent to limit the Legion to a single try. The Legion’s stilted attack constantly broke down under pressure despite all the chances created by San Diego’s scrum dominance and the penalties they earned.
LA GILTINIS 19
Tries: John Ryberg (38 min, 71), Angus Cottrell (45)
Conversions: Luke Burton (45), Luke Carty (71)
SAN DIEGO LEGION 13
Tries: Dean Muir (33)
Conversion: Joe Pietersen (33)
Penalty goals: Joe Pietersen (4, 68)
Half-time: 10-5 Legion
Venue: Torrero Stadium, San Diego