The LA Giltinis have locked up home-ground advantage and top seeding for the Major League Rugby finals with a second-half shutout of the Austin Gilgronis at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Trailing 17-12 at halftime, the Giltinis bounced back to score three unanswered tries in the second term to seal a bonus point win and take their record to 12-3 to ensure a home final in their debut MLR season.
With their season on the line, AG Rugby (9-6) took the game to their more fancied rivals in a tight first half, scoring two tries and making their rivals do plenty of work in defence.
The Giltinis’ engine room was disrupted early after tighthead prop Marco Fepulea’i was forced off following a friendly fire head clash with captain Dave Dennis.
Reserve prop Charlie Abel came into the game after just 10 minutes, while on the other side of the scrum, JP Smith (pictured below) put in a hurculean performance, eventually earning player of the match honours.
The Giltinis applied enormous pressure early, kicking to the corner from consecutive penalties and setting up rolling mauls, looking to power over close to the line.
But AG Rugby’s staunch defence paid off and they were first to score in what became a tense and see-sawing first-half arm wrestle.
The Giltinis hit back with a penalty try after Gilgronis forward Michael De Waal was ruled to have brought a maul down close to the line and scored again when the flanker was in the sin bin.
With their opponents a man down, the Giltinis showed the running rugby for which they are renowned, with Billy Meakes (below) notching a nomination for try of the season.
Receiving the ball on the left flank from flyhalf Matt Giteau, Meakes chipped inside for scrumhalf Harrison Goddard before getting a pass back and running 20 yards to the line.
But a Mack Mason penalty goal and a try to hooker Hugh Roach late in the first half after the Giltinis turned the ball over inside their own 22, gave the visitors a sniff at the break.
Uncharacteristic errors at the maul and a desperate AG Rugby outfit left the Giltinis with a huge defensive workrate in the first half, the LA side making almost three times as many tackles as their rivals.
They picked things up in the second half, winger Johnny Ryberg (below) scoring the first of his double to level the scores, with Giteau’s conversion giving them the lead for the first time in the match.
The try looked to have opened the floodgates but a mistake from Giteau kicking for touch handed possession back to AG Rugby and they pushed deep into the Giltinis’ half where they continued to control the ball.
While the Giltinis are known for their attacking flair, it was a trio of defensive plays that saved the game for the home side.
Goddard and DTH van der Merwe scrambled to push charging former All Black Frank Halai into touch before the Gilgronis were held up following a 5m scrum and intense defensive pressure forced a lost ball the next time the visitors made a raid.
Two marginal calls in favour of the Giltinis inside the final 15 minutes also helped turn the tide, with Giteau awarded a penalty for being held down briefly well behind the play – leading to scrumhalf Goddard’s runaway try – before Halai’s run to an open tryline was stopped after Roach was penalised again, for a brief foothold on a Giltinis defender.
Ryberg put an exclaimation point on the win with his second try of the match ending a sweeping backline move in which Giteau wrapped around Meakes to open space before firing the ball on to fullback Luke Burton and then Ryberg for the try.
The Giltinis take on the Utah Warriors on the road next week.
LA GILTINIS 31
Penalty try (17min), Billy Meakes (25), John Ryberg (52, 73), Harrison Goddard
Matt Giteau (52, 66)
AUSTIN GILGRONIS 17
Lachlan McCaffrey (14), Hugh Roach (34)
Mack Mason (15, 35)
Mack Mason (21)