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Top-seeded Bonnies edge Lions, 19-18, to win National Collegiate Rugby title

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 HOUSTON — No one ever said it would be easy, but the challenge made it all the sweeter.

In a game dictated by a strong wind for the entire 80 minutes, top-seeded St. Bonaventure held on by the last shred of its fingernails and defeated No. 2 Penn State, 19-18, to win the National Collegiate Rugby Division I Championship Saturday night at AVEVA Stadium in Houston.

“The boys had to dig deep for that one,” said coach Tui Osborne. “We had a lot of cramping (from our starters), but the bench stepped up and did a great job. We’re going to celebrate tonight, no doubt.”

Playing a man down for much of the second half after being assessed yellow and red cards, the Bonnies watched a 19-3 lead with 23 minutes left slip to a single point with just three minutes to play, but a strong Bonaventure push toward the try line left the Nittany Lions with 95 yards to go and less than a minute left. When Josh Smith held a Penn State runner up and a scrum was called for the Bonnies, the ref blew the whistle to end the game near midfield.

“This is unbelievable for our program,” said Matthew Conroy, a flanker from Glasgow, Scotland, who was named Man of the Match. “You could see how much it meant in our eyes and our coaches’ eyes, how much we wanted this.”

The leg of Northern Ireland’s Keelin Coyle staked the Bonnies to a 9-0 lead in the first 20 minutes. Coyle converted penalty kicks from all three angles – right, left and center – to take advantage of the stiff wind at the Bonnies’ backs.

“That was huge getting the wind in the first half. It’s always a great confidence booster to be able to score early,” Osborne said.

Rick Rose bulled over for a try with eight minutes left in the half to give the Bonnies a 14-0 lead, but a costly penalty as time was expiring gave Penn State a penalty kick to cut the deficit to 14-3 at half.

Kenmore’s Cory Ratka scored just three minutes into the second half to put SBU up 19-3, but some undisciplined play put the Bonnies a man down twice, allowing Penn State the claw its way back. A missed Nittany Lion conversion after its first try ultimately gave Bonaventure the cushion it needed to hold on.

“Oh, man, I almost had a heart attack the last few minutes,” said Osborne, who admitted he was in tears when the game ended.

“We had a five-year plan and realized it,” he said. “It was just so rewarding to see all the hard work of the boys pay off, and to do it with a man like Danny Neighbour, who’s one of the best assistant coaches in the game, and with all the community and alumni support … it was just tremendous to see it all come together.”

The Bonnies beat Mary Washington, 39-7, Nov. 20 and Kutztown, 27-15, on Dec. 4 to advance to the title game. Penn State won both of its matches to reach the title game, over Brown and Queens University, by a single point.

 The Bonnies (10-2) finished the season on a six-game winning streak.

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