Backed up against their own goal line, staring down a Cal Poly running attack as relentless as the tide, the #15 UCSB men’s rugby team could have cracked. Trailing by only one, but coming run after heart-stopping Mustang run away from a nearly insurmountable deficit, the Gauchos could have eroded like the Del Playa cliffs.
Instead, after a season-defining defensive stand that lasted over five minutes, with Cal Poly driving time and again to within inches of the Santa Barbara goal line, and time and again being denied, UCSB recovered the ball. The Gauchos drove deep on a series of running plays to set up a penalty kick for a two-point lead with five minutes to play.
Five minutes to hold out defensively before an upset of the #4 Cal Poly Mustangs would become official.
But the Gauchos weren’t content to merely hold out. After stopping yet another furious Mustang attack, UCSB drove deep again on runs by junior inside-center Jason Sennessee and junior hooker Adam Mitchell. Mitchell then passed the ball back to third-year transfer Graham Smeaton, who drop-kicked it through the goalposts to put the exclamation point on the Gauchos’ extremely physical 14-9 win over their biggest rivals. A charged crowd of over three hundred watched the ball sail past the posts into the night air and erupted in cheers.
“It hurts a lot less when you win,” Smeaton said. “We’d been talking all week; we knew it’d be pretty close, so during practice I’d do the drop goals. I knew that there was no one on the left, so I just thought it’d be icing on the cake.”
“It was awesome,” senior scrumhalf Adam Christy said. “It’s redemption. I mean, they pretty much blew us out last year up in San Luis Obispo, so it’s nice to get revenge.”
In avenging last year’s bitter loss, UCSB held Cal Poly to no tries (the equivalent of a touchdown), and only three penalty kicks for nine points, no small feat considering the size advantage the Mustangs possessed. But although Cal Poly was able to push UCSB around early on, by the end of the game the Gauchos were able to assert their will.
“That’s what we worked on all week – a lot of defense – and we held them to no tries today, which is a victory in itself,” Christy said.
Cal Poly took a 3-0 lead on a penalty kick after driving deep in the first two minutes. After exchanging possession several times, UCSB drop-kicked the ball into Mustang territory and recovered it, setting up a tremendous run by Smeaton that brought the crowd back to life. A combination of Gauchos pounded the ball towards Cal Poly’s goal line, finally crossing it for a try and a 5-3 lead. They took an 8-6 lead into halftime.
The Mustangs quickly scored on a penalty kick in the second half for a 9-8 lead, but Santa Barbara had more energy later on and controlled the rest of the game, to the delight of an unexpectedly large crowd that Gaucho Head Coach Kevin Battle raved about afterwards.
“The fans are what make it, the fans are the 16th player. I don’t know if we could have done this without the fans,” Battle said.
Despite winning their biggest game of the season, Smeaton and the 6-1 Gauchos have all eyes ahead.
“We’ve got another big one here next week against UCLA,” Smeaton said. “They’re a top-20 team. So hopefully, we’ll get another big crowd and another big win.”