Gold Bounce Back, Use Big Defensive Stand to Defeat SaberCats
By: Colton Strickler, MLR Correspondent
Photos: Craig Boudreaux
On the heels of a frustrating loss to the Seattle Seawolves, the NOLA Gold responded with a big 24-20 win at home over the Houston SaberCats on Saturday evening.
“It was massive for us,” Gold head coach Nate Osborne said over the phone following his team’s bounce-back win. “We talked about it all week. We left some points on the board last week. Nine points in conversions. We scored five tries to four. We thought we deserved to win and we thought we should win, but sometimes even when you do the right things you don’t come out on the right end.”
Houston (1-3) on the other hand was coming off a bye week, and it was apparent from the beginning that the SaberCats were running with fresh legs. They got the scoring started early when fly-half Sam Windsor threw a dummy that froze NOLA’s (2-2) entire backline, allowing him to shoot through a hole for the first try of the match. He kicked his own conversion, and the Gold found themselves in a hole early.
“In terms of position and possession, we had the lion’s share of both in both the first and second half,” Houston head coach Justin Fitzpatrick said after the match. “We made too many unforced errors and that didn’t help us. That said, we could have snuck in at the end.”
While Houston wasn’t able to add on to their lead in the ensuing 20 minutes, the SaberCats dominated the territory game. NOLA’s first real sign of life came in the 23rd minute when fullback Michael Baska received a switch from outside centre Zack Stryffeler. Baska put a grubber deep down into Houston territory, setting up a Stryffeler try off a ball from scrum-half Holden Yungert off a ruck a few phases later. Taylor Howden shook the yips he had in the kicking game a week prior when he knocked the conversion through and tied the game.
Houston jumped back out in front with a Windsor penalty kick, but NOLA answered back with their second try of the match. Howden threw a dummy that allowed him to break Houston’s line. Once through, he chipped the ball over SaberCats’ fullback Zach Pangelinan. Pangelinan jumped on the ball, but when engaged by Howden in the Houston in-goal, he failed to release the ball and the Gold was awarded a penalty try.
Up 14-10, the Gold’s next try was a result of some of the defensive tenacity that would eventually seal the game for them in the end. As Houston spun their back to their backline off a scrum in their own territory, a Howden tackle jarred the ball loose and into the hands of fly-half Ratu Rinakama who took the ball in for a try. Howden converted the kick and the Gold settled into their largest lead of the game.
Just as it looked as if NOLA would take a 21-10 lead into the half, Houston answered back with a try of their own. As Houston worked their way down into NOLA territory, scrum-half Connor Murphy froze the defense with a dummy of his own and slid into for a try in stoppage time. Windsor nailed the conversion and Houston went into the half down 21-17.
“At one point they were down 21-10 with like a minute to go in the first half and we allowed them to score to get them back in the game and it was a seesaw from there,” Osborne said of the late swings. “We really could’ve done ourselves a lot of favors and really put our foot down once we got to that 21-10 lead and put some back-to-back tries in or even back-to-back points.”
The second half didn’t bring with it the high-scoring action that the first half did. Instead, it came down to guts.
Arguably the biggest play of the match came in the 54th minute on a NOLA counterattack. As one of the Gold took the ball with a head of steam, Pangelinan tackled him high and was presented a yellow card. This, combined with the yellow card he was presented for the penalty try earlier in the match, meant that he would receive a red card and the SaberCats would have to play the remaining 26 minutes a man down.
NOLA capitalized on the Houston penalty with a Howden kick and the Gold settled into a 24-17 lead.
Despite the odd numbers, the SaberCats gave the Gold all they could handle. They answered back with a penalty kick of their own in the 62nd minute. Howden tried to extend NOLA’s lead with a deep penalty kick minutes later, but his attempt came up short and Houston went back to work.
The SaberCats put themselves in a position to win late in the match with a double-digit phase sequence that drove them down into the NOLA territory. The Gold, with their backs against the wall, stood strong and forced the SaberCats into a knock on. Howden cleared the ball with a kick that gobbled up 60 metres, and the Gold locked up the victory.
“I actually think it was our will and our want to work for each other,” Osborne said. “Truly. At the end of the game, leading by four points down on our try line and we defend 15, 20 phases and we were able to hold them out. In past weeks we haven’t been able to hold those sorts of things and I thought a defensive stand at the end really showed the character that we are trying to build here.”
“I was very proud of the ways that the guys worked under duress to stay in the hunt and we certainly could’ve snuck in in the end,” Fitzpatrick said. “It wasn’t meant to be. I think the difference between the two sides was the unforced errors that stopped us from keeping continuity and put us under pressure unnecessarily.”
NOLA picked up three points in the win, giving them 11 on the season and moving them up into third place. The loss moves Houston back into sixth place, but the SaberCats picked up a bonus point in the loss for losing by less than seven points.
Despite the loss, Fitzpatrick knows how big those bonus points can be down the line.
“It all counts,” Fitzpatrick said. “What we are finding out about this league is that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. We’ve got some of the northern team coming down to Houston to finish out and that’s obviously a factor for ourselves and New Orleans today in this heat. We’ve just got to be more clinical and ask more of ourselves with ball in hand. If we do that, as we showed today, we can score some really good tries.”
For NOLA on the other hand, Osborne feels like this win puts his team right back on track for where they want to be with four games to play.
“We talked about all week that we wanted to put ourselves back in playoff contention, go to .500 and really push forward through the rest of the season,” Osborne said. “We have four more games that we can come out on top and really push into the playoff with a bit of momentum.”
NOLA will travel North to take on the Seattle Seawolves Sunday, May 27 while Houston will host the Utah Warriors Saturday, May 26.
Tries: Zack Stryffeler, Ratu Rinakama, Penalty Try
Penalties: Taylor Howden (1/2)
Conversions: Taylor Howden (2/2)
Tries: Sam Windsor, Connor Murphy
Penalties: Sam Windsor (2/2)
Conversions: Sam Windsor (2/2)
Colton can be reached at [email protected].
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