The Memphis Tigers traveled to Starkville last Saturday to take on the Bulldogs of Mississippi State University. The day was beautiful with a clear sky, 79 degrees and only a brisk wind to make the day challenging. The Tigers were prepared to take on an SEC powerhouse and the lads felt up to the challenge. The Tigers opted to go into the wind the first half, hoping that the wind would be kind in the second half.
However, the Tigers blinked… and the Bulldogs struck first. Only 4 minutes into the match, the MSU center broke two tackles and dove over the try line to take 5 points. The kicker notched two and the Tigers were down 0-7. This slap in the face woke up the Tigers. The Tigers gathered themselves, tightened up the defense, and went back to work.
The play was fierce, but the Tigers seemed to be making the best of the loose play with the ability to put together several phases of play in a row with no answer by the bullies. On defense, we were stealing their ball at the breakdown, mostly taking it out of their hands. Several players (Josiah, Joshua, Aimeer and Ryan) were seen leaving a red maul with ball in hand. The only problem that the Tigers had was the scrum, where they outweighed us by 40 lbs in the front row. However, after 20 minutes of adjustments, the scrums settled and the tigers were back to a draw in these set pieces.
The Tigers dominated the lineouts. The bulldogs had no answer for Kian and his lifters, who looked more comfortable as the day proceeded. Whether it was a short lineout, quick off the top, or a pick and drive, the Tigers had complete control of this aspect of the game.
The Tigers spent quite a bit of time knocking on the door and gold came with 13 minutes left in the half, when Simren Dhaliwal connected with a sweet backline play started by fill-in flyhalf, Justin Walden. Walden had worked with Tarek and Jay to bash up the middle, and it was getting soft. When Walden sensed that the middle was oversupported by the fullback and wingers, he took the ball wide, involving Anthony and Scott in the play. Finally the ball was popped to Simren at wing who kicked in the after burners, taking the ball to the southwest corner. The kick was impossible in the wind. Tigers still down, but feeling better… 5-7.
The Tigers keep up the pressure and it was obvious that they were much more fit than their counterparts. The State pack was walking, and their backline coverage was in disarray. With six minutes left in the half, Joshua found his chance. With some nimble footwork, he picked his way through several tacklers and pounded the ball in the try zone. Tigers feel better going into the half up 10-7.
Starting the second half, the Tigers are feeling better about their play and believe the wind and their fitness will help open up the game. However, 8 minutes into the second half, it is State that finds the tryline and the Tigers are down again 10-14.
The fitness that the Tigers bring to the match is marginalized by multiple stoppages of play by the referee who is taking time to explain and teach on each breakdown. The Tigers press where they can (lineouts and penalty kicks) but the scrums take up to 2-3 minutes to set providing the Bullies the break that they need.
Finally, on a great run midway through the second half, Simren somehow finds the handle of the ball that bounced off his chest after the inside pass from Scott, and finds his way to the try line. The kick is still not good (dang wind) but the Tigers are again up 15-14.
Oops… not so fast. It is State that applies pressure, and on a long breakaway run that collects a penalty close to the Tigers line. With a quick tap and a fast ruck, the MSU boys break over and notch another try under the posts. The kick is good… and the Tigers are again behind. 15-21
(This is the point where Coach Cole is about to lose his mind, and starts pulling his hair out by the roots.)
The Tigers are not to be outdone. They know time is short and press like mad. They have the formula, punch the middle and swing to the outside where we have the speed. Following a quick ruck at midfield, Walden swings the ball to Nolan Wilson on the wing. He tears down the sideline but there are players blocking his path. He kicks ahead perfectly at the 30 and Scott tears forward to find the ball. It bounces hard and high, Scott leaps into the air, grabs the ball and slams it to the ground. The ball goes flying as bodies crumble in the try zone. The referee did not see the ball touched down. The try is not awarded. The coach is heartbroken.
Intensity continues to ratchet up. Every tackle, ruck, maul and set piece is powerful and fierce. The Tigers are not holding anything back and they pound away at the MSU defense. Several try their hand at crashing through including Walden who is stopped with an illegal hit at the three. When Tigers take one against the head at the 10 meter line, Kian attacks with a full contingent of forwards. Bashing forward the maul falls into the try zone, but the referee cannot see who, or if the ball was downed. Still no try awarded. Tigers are now attacking on the 5 meter line with time running out. Unfortunately, State gets a break and clears the ball out.
The Tigers use their lineout play to set a maul that drives forward 10 meters before it is stopped. Quick ball to the backs and they are on attack. Second phase, third phase, fourth phase and finally…. Aimeer McCrary has the ball with 20 meters to run, three people to beat and a full head of steam. He breaks two tackles and looks dead in the eyes of a winger, who really doesn’t want any piece of Aimeer. Aimeer dives over to take 5 points under the left post. 19-21. Joshua is called on to kick the conversion for the go-ahead. Coach Cole cannot breathe. The kick is good and the Tigers are up again, 22-21.
There is only one minute left on the clock when the Bullies run to mid stripe and kick off deep. The Tigers set the best maul of the day from a kickoff and drive forward. As the maul falls forward and breaks apart, the referee calls “not releasing” What??? A penalty with almost no time on the clock…. 30 meters from the goal line. A kicker who has not missed all day, steps up to take the kick. He is kicking almost directly into the wind and as he tees up the ball, the wind slacks off. (Can this be?) However, the wind picks up again and is blowing even harder, blowing the ball from the tee. He resets the ball and readies for the kick. (I cannot look.)
The ball is struck well and flies true. It is heading inside the right post, but then a wind gust slows the ball… and it drifts. Is the kick good? The MSU fans leap to their feet in celebration. However, the touch judges have one flag up and one flag down. There is no whistle from the referee. The kick is wide right.
The crowd is confused. Phil gathers the ball and asks the referee if the game is over if the ball is kicked to touch. The referee does not answer. Phil drop kicks to touch, and the referee ends the match. The coach has fainted. Kian had chosen to take the wind in the second half. Great call.
I don’t like to win this way. I’d rather the nice safe 30-40 point lead, but a win is a win… and a win over MSU, with their rugby traditions and 8 seniors, is a really good win for the Tigers. The Tigers go 8-2 in collegiate play. (Someone call Goeff Calkins. This is news.)
Points scored: Simren Dhaliwal 10, Joshua Campbell 7, Aimeer McCrary 5
Man of the Match – Simren Dhaliwal, Best Back – Justin Walden, Best Forward – Aimeer McCrary
Referee: Shane Harris
Side: 1. Will Fitts 2. Josiah Shipley 3. Aimeer McCrary 4. Ryan Phillips 5. Jonathan Bauer 6. Adam Hairston 7. Josh Campbell 8. Kian Koleini 9. Phil Elliott 10. Justin Walden 11. Willie Lacey 12. Tarek Ghwaji 13. Anthony Smith 14. Chris Tapp 15. Scott Smith 16. Thomas DiFillippo 17. Lee Downing 18. Nolan 19. Simren Dhaliwal 20. Jay Mac Donnchadh