Friday night’s matchup against the Toronto Arrows couldn’t have been much bigger for the Colorado Raptors.
With a loss to the undefeated Arrows (4-1(1-0 EC)), the Raptors (2-3, (1-2 WC)) would’ve been deep in a hole as they approach the midpoint of the second quarter of the season.
While certainly not impossible, the Raptors would’ve had their work cut out for them if the playoffs were apart of their plans in 2020.
The Raptors didn’t let that become a possibility, and in their biggest match of the season thus far, they played their best rugby. The Raptors rose to the challenge and used a 22-19 victory to hand the Arrows their first loss of the season.
“Oh, it was huge,” No. 8 Sam Slade said after the match. “That was our final so far. Biggest game of the season and our best game of the season. We are really proud of the boys.”
After John Ryberg and Gaston Mieres traded tries in the first half, it can be argued that Friday’s match really came down to two defensive stands by Colorado at the ends of both halves. The first came towards the tail end of the first half after Raptors inside center Rene Ranger was given a yellow card for deliberately slowing down the match when he kicked a ball that Colorado didn’t possess towards his own try line. Playing down a man and trailing 13-11 on the scoreboard, the Raptors stuffed an Arrows maul and then the six phases that developed after that inside the five-meter line before forcing Toronto into a turnover.
Colorado flipped the field and the momentum just a few minutes later when Slade caught Toronto sleeping. He scooped the ball out of the back of the ruck and ripped off a big run that allowed the Raptors to set up deep in Arrows territory. In a scramble to get back on defense, Toronto hooker Andrew Quattrin tackled Colorado scrum-half Carlo de Nysschen around the head and received a yellow card of his own just before halftime.
Instead of trailing the Arrows by either a converted try or nine points, inside center Robbie Petzer used the Toronto yellow card to hit his third penalty goal of the match and give the Raptors a 14-13 lead heading into the half with all the momentum on their side.
“I think it was the defense,” scrum-half Nick Boyer said of the difference in the match. “I think you saw the last few minutes in the first half, that really lifted us.”
The Raptors parlayed that momentum into an early try in the second half that changed the game. After fly-half Ata Malifa put the ball in the air to start the second half, Arrows wing Leandro Leivas was unable to field the kick cleanly and the ball bounced into the arms of Raptors wing Mika Kruse.
Kruse made a few men miss and scrambled in for the try that gave the Raptors a 19-13 lead just second after the second half began.
After a relatively eventless second half, Raptors prop Marco Fepulea’i was given a yellow card for a high tackle in the 66th minute. Arrows fullback Sam Malcolm hit the penalty goal that ensued and tied the match at 19 points apiece. With the Arrows playing with a man advantage for the next 10 minutes, it seemed as if the Raptors were on the ropes.
Despite struggling in the scrum without Fepulea’i, the Raptors made it through the 10 minutes unscathed and actually took a 22-19 lead in the 76th minute when Petzer hit his fourth penalty goal of the evening.
With the Raptors clinging to a three-point lead, the Arrows made once last push at victory. After kicking to touch in Raptors territory, the Arrows established a driving maul that moved their attack inside Colorado’s 22-meter line. With the clock winding down, Toronto began to move the ball to the wide side of the field. As the Arrows threatened to score, Ranger popped the ball out of the Toronto attacker’s hands and the ball landed in the arms of Kruse who immediately went to the ground.
“The last two minutes here on our own goal line, having the guts to grind it out, that was pretty good composure from our team,” Boyer said.
From there, the Raptors played for possession. With their backs against the wall, they ground out a few phases that gobbled up the remaining minute on the clock. Once the final horn rang through Infinity Park, scrum-half Nick Boyer sent the ball back to fly-half Tomas Quinlan who kicked the through the back of the in-goal to complete the biggest upset of the young season.
“I think we just wanted it more,” Slade said of the victory. “I think our training through the week affected it, and we just showed up today with a good attitude and we were hungry.”
Slade finished with eight carries for 101 meters, the most of any player in the match, and also made nine tackles on defense in a full 80 minutes of work to earn man of the match honors.
With their second win in as many weeks under their belts, the Raptors will have another tough test in Round 6 on the road against a 4-1 Old Glory D.C. team that’s lead by 2019 World Cup winner Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira.
“That was really good for our momentum,” Boyer said of the direction of the team. “Obviously, first win last week against Utah, and then to have one of the top teams in comp come to town, to get that W means a lot.”
To keep that momentum rolling, the Raptors know that they’ll have to keep it simple.
“Don’t get complacent,” Slade said. “Do our recovery. Just get back to the drawing board. It’s a new day.”
“Just get back to our basics,” Boyer said. “Everyone does their job. Keep the phase count high, I thought we did really well keeping the ball in play this week. If we do that, we look really good.”
Tries: John Ryberg, Mika Kruse
Conversions: Robbie Petzer (0/2)
Penalty Goals: Robbie Petzer (4/4)
Tries: Gaston Mieres
Conversions: Sam Malcolm (1/1)
Penalty Goals: Sam Malcolm (4/4)