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A Classic as United, Herriman Tie

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A Classic as United, Herriman Tie

United's defense swarms Manaia Brown. Travis Watson photo.

Herriman-United is a game that fans on both sides have come to circle on their calendar every season, and this year it should have been circled twice.

The two teams have played every year since Herriman's first varsity season in 2011, and though United has never come out on top, the majority of those matches have been absolute classics. With both programs ranked in the Top Five  nationally and with designs on strong nationals runs, this game promised to be another of those classics, and boy did it deliver.

Herriman, playing at home, took the opening kickoff and began a methodical march down the field. The United defense was strong and determined not to give ground, and made the Mustangs work for every inch, but Herriman was equally determined and showed nice patience in going through the phases, keeping the ball for the first 7 minutes of the game. United was finally able to get a reprieve by forcing a Herriman runner in to touch five meters from the goalline, but United had trouble finding the right touch trying to throw over the top of Herriman's Isaiah Caver, and the ball was overthrown.  Herriman openside Afa Kula showed great awareness in coming up immediately to pick up the bouncing ball and punch his way over for a try, and No. 8 Caden Syddall's conversion made it 7-0. 

United finally got their hands on the ball after a Herriman clear from the ensuing kickoff, but were unable to get anything going due to defensive pressure from Herriman's Sake Tukuafu and Taimane Brown.  Tukuafu put Herriman in good field position with a chip kick ahead and a tackle in to touch, and Herriman nearly added a second try when inside center Dane Ellermeier made a huge 40-meter break into a gap.  Ellermeier tried to stretch out and dot the ball down, but United's Matt Brown showed great resolve in hanging on just enough to force a knock-on. 

United was able to completely flip field position when Herriman made an errant pass on their counterattack and the United backs picked up the ball and were nearly away for a nice try, ultimately getting stopped by impressive hustle from Dominic Martucci and Josiah Dunn but also getting an offensive five-meter scrum. Kula stopped an eightman pick from Dwayne Roebuck, and when United tried to go wide, a charging Ellermeier attempted to make the stop nearly 30 meters behind the gain line. But he was a bit overaggressive and was yellow-carded for a high tackle. United took the opportunity of the man advantage with some nifty running that resulted in a few missed tackles. When Herriman was penalized near the line, United tapped and fed Savea Fitisemanu, who powered over for a score to close the gap to 7-5 with 15 minutes left in the first half.

Herriman backed up United on the restart, and Tukuafu took advantage of an errant United pass to put his team back on offense.  The ball made its way outside to Kula who offloaded to Taimane Brown, and the sophomore wing did well to gain several meters before fighting inside to keep the ball alive.  Flyhalf Cam Connors burst through a gap and then found Syddall in the backline. The No. 8 committed his defender and zipped a perfect pass to a charging Josiah Dunn, and the speedy junior wing touched down for a corner try for the still-shorthanded Mustangs.  Syddall, who also throws the Herriman lineouts, continued to show his all-around prowess by drilling a sideline conversion right between the posts, into the wind. 

A big Tukuafu break got Herriman right back in to United territory, and even though United was able to get the ball back, it would not keep it for very long, with Caver stealing a lineout throw to set up Ellermeier for another hard charge.  More patient play got the ball back working through the forwards, and Caver took a pass from 10 meters out and sliced his way through the United defense, reaching over for Herriman's third try of the half, which was once again converted by Syddall for a 21-5 halftime lead.

The first five minutes of the second half saw some good back and forth play from both teams, but United's renewed energy to close the gap after halftime caused some ill discipline at the breakdown, and Herriman was pinged for not rolling away. The Mustangs were then dealt a massive blow when Tukuafu was yellow carded for what seemed to be a routine offside call at the ruck. United took advantage immediately, getting some numbers out wide for flyhalf Nick Lavulavu to take advantage of and hit a gap in the Herriman defense for a strong run in to the try zone.  Lavulavu made an excellent near-sideline kick for an important conversion. 

The ensuing restart was well covered by Herriman prop Xander Lower, who forced a not releasing penalty on United on his poach attempt. Syddall calmly slotted the 25-meter penalty kick to push the lead to 24-12, and Herriman's second shorthanded score. The Mustangs weathered continued play with Tukuafu in the bin, surviving several nice United movements in to their territory and lots of strong running from Lavulavu. United spent the better part of 10 minutes camped in Herriman territory, getting as close as 3 meters away, but the Herriman defense refused to yield and Tyler Anderson and Manaia Brown forced the ball out of the opposition's hands and Syddall made a big run the give the hosts some breathing room.

Another forced turnover near the goalline, this one from Kula, and a Cam Connors clear to midfield cleared to zone for good, just in time for Tukuafu to come on and put the Mustangs back at full strength.  United tried to move wide from a scrum near midfield, but Herriman pressure caused Lavulavu to throw an errant pass which was kicked ahead from the ground by Dunn.  Racing with defenders in hot pursuit, Dunn was first to the ball and kicked ahead again, and once again beat his defenders to the try zone.  An apparent touch down on the ball which may have put the game out of reach was disallowed by the touch judge, who disagreed that Dunn's hand made contact with the grounded ball. Herriman went back on attack but kept running in to a fierce United wall, who nonetheless got overzealous and pinged for a penalty.  Syddall opted to take a shot at goal from 40 meters out, and though the kick had plenty of distance, it sailed just wide, keeping the margin at 12 with 10 minutes to play.

At this point, although United had been the slightly better team the second half, play was still fairly even back and forth, but the Herriman team was starting to tire from the hard fought game, while United seemed to have a bit more pep in their step. Herriman defended doggedly for the next several minutes, but United found themselves with an overlap out wide, and Spencer Fotu was away before the Herriman defense could catch up.  The conversion made the score 24-19 with 5 minutes left, and breathed even more life in to an energized United side.  United gained the ball from the ensuing kickoff and, with nothing to lose, began offloading outside into space at every tackle. 

The tactic worked, and they were able to break away down the sideline for another long try against a Herriman defense that just didn't seem to have anything left in the tank after playing several games in recent weeks where they were able to pull their starters early.  The straight ahead conversion seemed like an afterthought and would have given United the lead with 2 minutes remaining, but Syddall somehow found enough of a burst to pressure the kick and get a hand on it, blocking the conversion attempt to the shock of a large crowd to preserve the 24-24 scoreline. 

Syddall hit a booming restart to pin United down, and freshman wing Logan Youngblood chased well and made the tackle to keep United back near their line.  A knock on gave a five-meter scrum to Herriman and a last gasp for points. Herriman, thinking it had advantage on a penalty rushed a bit and lost the ball. But there was no penalty. United cleared the ball and Herriman threw a risky pass to try and make a break that floated just a bit out of reach and led to a knock-on off of the fingertips.  The final whistle blew for a well-earned draw from two teams who put on a gem of a high school rugby match. 

The result, while leaving both teams unsatisfied, was perhaps the correct one in a game that neither team really deserved to lose. United should feel pleased with their team's effort and resilience to come back and make plays late when they needed to but can also learn a lesson about having too big a hole to climb out of, while Herriman can take pleasure from a championship-caliber first half, but some missed opportunities and a harsh reminder that the game lasts the full 70 minutes. At the end of the day, this was a terrific high school rugby match between two teams who looked ready to make some serious noise at nationals and will learn a lot of lessons on putting together two complete halves from a game that managed to exceed its considerable level of hype.

"What a tremendous rugby match," said Herriman Director of Rugby. "United was every bit as good as we expected them to be and were well coached and prepared, and all credit to them for their quality of play, in particular late in the game. That is the most talented United team top to bottom that we have faced since we began the program. I was very pleased with about 70% of what I saw from our boys in this game.  At times, particularly in the first half, we had complete control of the game against an opponent whom we expect to show well at nationals. At the same time, there is an awareness that we are capable of that level of play for an entire match, and so we must find a way to sustain our level of execution and make our tackles. Fitness will be paramount going forward, we cannot afford to play 60 or 65 minutes of a game, we must be at our standard for all 70 minutes."