SF 22 @ NMT 15
Filed by: A Man on the Touchline
1. THE OCCASION
Following a year of forced hiatus, Saturday, April 24, 2021 was chosen by the gods for Santa Fe Rugby Club to retake the pitch. New Mexico Tech’s immaculate sea of green served as the venue, with the Santos coming away on top in a surprisingly well-played friendly.
When Joanne and I arrived Tech’s women’s team (known as the Queens when I coached them; now, I suppose the Lady Miners) had just kicked off a game of Sevens with the Lady Chiles of New Mexico State U. I paused a distance from the pitch to take in the scene and feel the sense of excitement.
This was a good game to watch. The players seemed to reflect the improvements in standards I’ve noticed in various You Tube videos of international women’s rugby. Both sides showed good ball retention and the understanding to spread the ball from side to side in search of space. As one of their three former coaches (following Herb Howell and Clint “Doc” Richardson) I was impressed with how willing the home side were to tackle. Some time after the Tech gals had prevailed and the men’s teams were preparing to take the pitch, one of the State ladies, obviously a back*, sprung up from the grass where she was relaxing and ran up to greet me. This turned out to be Alicia Pacheco, daughter of legendary Santos winger Martin and a young woman whose early career I had witnessed as an opposing coach. “My dad would want me to say hi”, Alicia announced.
As the men’s teams went through their final warmups I was surprised at the number of players
wearing the blood and gold of Santa Fe – at least 22, twice the number of guys I had observed at any one practice session in the previous four weeks. Let us pause to recognize our debt to the high-achieving program created at New Mexico Highlands University by Prof. Dickie Greene, a contemporary of some us from 1970s rugby in Albuquerque. Ryan Means, Jaime Terrazas, Frank Marchi, and Keith Maes (aka Rosey) all learned their rugby at the knee of Grandpa Dick or one of his understudies. Case in point: former Vato player-coach Brandon Rey (aka Monster), now back in his native El Paso, brought up a couple of his current UTEP Miner protogés to reinforce our back line.**
Of course we can’t overlook another Vatoman who seems to turn up whenever and wherever there’s rugby to be played – our friend Armando Herrera, probably more widely known as “Mando.”
(Mea culpa: Armando told me he doesn’t think he’s on the email list. I took his address at training last night and now cannot find it!)
I am reminded that rugby players play rugby and the lengths they will go to get a game. Hats off to NMT director of rugby Gearoid Dunbar for his hard work in helping to safely restore competitive rugby to the Rio Grande.
* Although their function is often unclear to the casual observer, nearly every rugby team contains at least one or two backs. Every forward knows their utility – to make the team more attractive, if not effective.
**Lest we lose the trace, at our own expense: what’s become of Hugo Gutierrez, the slender-yet-silky former Vato who graced some of our earlier sessions? Also those fellows who turned up at that first practice at Ashbaugh on April 24: Juan Galvez, Andre Fleming, Santiago Lujan – Whoever brought those men out may be eligible to have their CIPPs paid by one of the Anasazi.
2. WHAT HAPPENED
As usual the sun shone brightly on The Garden Spot of Central New Mexico, yet without unduly punishing us norteños. At long last the battle was joined with the royal-blue clad Miners, who on previous Saturdays had hosted and outscored women’s and men’s teams from New Mexico State as well as our loyal rivals Aardvarks.
The students showed their mettle through aggressive defense and occasional dangerous breaks. But our men were up to the challenge and stuck to the conservative, energy-conserving strategy laid out by Coach Richard Morris. I noticed the Santos were not so conservative with their tackling though, which was firm and sure most of the day.
After a prolonged period of closely-contested play, captain and flanker Ryan Weir put the finishing touch on a sustained drive to score our first try in over a year. Match commentator James Chavez dutifully announced the scorer’s name as it was provided to him: “Ryan W”. First-five/fly half/standoff/#10 Dustin Webb, a Tech alumnus, added the conversion, which according to my half-arsed notes, was the only successful goal kick of our day.
Not long after Mando knocked on at the goal line, but soon redeemed himself with a dead-on 15 meter backhanded spiral pass that brought audible gasps from spectators. I’m quite sure Mando was thinking of his glory days at Aspen RFC.
Monster scored one of his patented can’t-be-stopped tries from short range just before Justin Karrenburg’s 40-minute halftime whistle went.
Early in the second half SF went up 17-nil when lock/second row/#4 or #5 Jason Lithgow was justly rewarded for his faithful work in dark places when an offload pass from ? (name it and claim it) enabled him to crash over from short range.
Finally Tech’s fleet gang of backs got loose for a length-of-pitch try, but not before being seriously hounded by heroic pursuing tackles by Mr. Weir and budding wing Jason Osborn. Fortunately Tech’s conversion kicking was even less successful than ours on the day; 17-5.
Tech solidified their foothold with a second try scored by hard-running center Willie Uhrle, a native of American Samoa. 17-10. The concern now was that Tech’s relatively-uninterrupted fitness program would prove decisive. Santos soon had a chance to add three insurance points but center Tanner Graham’s penalty kick bounced away off the post.
In the final 20 minutes of play we got the break we needed when exemplary defensive pressure up front forced a weak kick by one of the kids from inside his own 22-meter line. Frank Marchi fielded the kick cleanly and deftly picked his way through the disorganized defense to touch down for a 22 to 10 margin. NMT received their consolation when their big inside center (who proved to be yet another Vato loaner) (!) touched down the day’s last try. My notes show a final tally of Santa Fe 22, New Mexico Tech 22-15.
The Santos were tired yet jubilant as they came off the pitch, perhaps as much to have finally broken the playing drought as to have won a full 80 minute contest. The team posed for photos beneath the posts and Captain Weir announced Ryan Means as Man of the Match for his relentless play at hooker, enthusiastic defense, and faithful support play.
It would be wrong to not mention a few of the heroics on display. As always, Isaiah “Izzy” Sanchez provided airtight last-line defense. The evergreen Dave Jondreau put in a good shift (or two, under generous sub rules), including a lightning poach and pass reminiscent of bygone days. Dustin Webb took the gap with purpose at #10 whenever it presented itself. Santo center and three-time NMT Player of the Year Tanner Graham never failed to drag at least two would-be tacklers 10 or 15 meters beyond the gainline and disheartened opposing carriers. His center partner Jaime Terrazas looked dangerous and there could be trouble as these two grow accustomed to each other’s play. Nicolas Fariña, our sole Argentine, started at wing but got a chance to backstop the team at fullback in the second half. The power Joe Bonham and Jerod Skillman bring to our pack was on display once again, while as always Ryan Weir was everywhere. And it was food for the soul to see Dan Allinder back in the color after a spell in the midwestern wilderness.
This was one of those days when Rugby was the winner.
POST SCRIPT: FOOD FOR THOUGHT?