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Life Wins Barnburner D1 Elite Final on Late Kick

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Life Wins Barnburner D1 Elite Final on Late Kick

Life celebrates. USA Rugby photo.

In a wild barnburner of a D1 Elite final, Life University somehow got by Lindenwood to win their first-ever Women's D1 Elite Championship.

These two teams had been in the final against each other five previous times—every final since the 2017-18 season (2020 was COVID-canceled), and Lindenwood has prevailed each time. 

Early on it appeared we would see the same result. Lindenwood had much of the possession and territory and an offload to Freda Tafuna saw the loose forward thunder through for a try under the posts.  The Sorensen Finalist was immense, causing all sorts of problems for the Life defense and charging in for a second not that long afterward. She wasn't alone, and the back row trio of Tafuna, Ahnea Aupiu, and Makena Taumoepeau were an imposing unit.

With Demi Allen making her mark at fullback and Amy Brice setting up her teammates in the midfield, Lindenwood started to roll. Brice scored and it was 17-0. The teams broke for hydration (this game was being played at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, Ariz., so the hydration break was crucial) and maybe there was time for Life to reassess.

“Lindenwood have been the best team in what is 7-plus years," Life Head Coarh Ryszard Chadwick had said before the game. "They do pretty much everything well and are flawless in their game execution. They know how to win. I don't think the game we played against them at home a few weeks ago will have any effect on this final match. The reality is each game is different. We know if we want to win, we have to show up ready to play a fantastic team. It's that simple.”

They hadn't really been fantastic up to that point, and a tactical shift was needed. Lindenwood was backing them up? Maybe Life could back them up, too. Using the boot of Nina Mason at center and Alle English at scrumhalf, Life worked to lengthen the first for Lindenwood and make them run. English zipped over for one. The kick-and-pressure then led to a lineout close to the Lindenwood line and AJ Haughey took it over to give Life some oxygen.

More pressure, and this time a scrum. Life ran a move through the backs and the other Sorensen Award finalist in this match, Matilda Kocaj, was in. 

With the half almost over, Lindenwood rebounded, as you knew they would. Down they worked to the goalline, where scrumhalf Taina Tukuafa sneaked in. Lindenwood 22, Life 19, and halftime with all to play for.

Momentum is an important thing and someone had to grab it early. This was often where Lindenwood would take control of matches and they seemed to here, with Tafuna capping off a really nice sequence from the forwards to net her third. Jet Anita Metz converted and it was 29-19 for Lindenwood.

But we were far from done.

Working methodically through the phases and using the boot when needed, Life played a patient territorial game—interesting for a game that seemed destined to break scoring records. But it was working. Closer and closer game the Running Eagles, and when lock Lissa Salisbury went over and Nina Mason slotted the extras, it was a nailbiter once more at 29-26. 

Once again the Lindenwood forwards went on the attack, and the inevitable happened, as Life put more defensive resources to stopping those hard runners. So that made for more space for the backs, and Brice set up Madison Jersey, who was in to keep Life at arm's length. The score was now 34-26. Yes Lindenwood had led almost the entire game (save for that period after Kocaj's try made it Life 19 Lindenwood 17), but look at it this way—the Lions had scored six tries and converted just two. Life had scored four and converted three—the Running Eagles were still within reach.

And Mason's goalkicking had been a factor for Life all season. With good accuracy and range, and good consistency, too, the Doylestown, Pa. product was perhaps their path to victory. When Lindenwood was penalized about 40 meters out she had no problem with it, and put her side within a try at 34-29. But once again Lindenwood responded. Tafuna thundered through for her fourth and capped off an astonishing 15s career with the Lions. Metz converted and it was 41-29.

Amazingly, that would be Lindenwood's final points of the night. A perfect pass to the onrushing Mercie Vavao put the Life prop over for the Running Eagles' next try. As the full time loomed, Life started to open up their attack and had Lindenwood scrambling. Once again they showed superb patience, consolidated well, and hooker Danie Taulua picked up and dove over. Mason's kick was good and it was 41-41.

Last score wins. Time was winding down, and the entire season had come down to a few minutes. Lindenwood worked their way forward, and Life was smart, defending but not trying to make that silly, impatient poaching attempt that would lead to a penalty. Instead they waited for the right time, and when they got the ball back, hoofed it downfield. Kocaj got on her horse and chased, making the key tackle and forcing a penalty. That was all they needed. Mason calmly stepped up and put the kick over. Lindenwood had one ore shot, but the Life defense held.

It was an astonishing win, with Life hardly ever in the lead, but never far away. What they did do was stick to being patient; use a territorial game to their advantage; kick well for goal; and not panic.

Haughey was named MVP but it's fair to say Kocaj and English and Mason all had their influence, as well, as did a largely unheralded group of forwards. But with Lindenwood scoring more tries than Life, the difference on the scoreboard was Nina Mason's ability to get points. For Lindenwood, the run had to end sometime. This is an excellent Lindenwood team, led by some excellent talent, but it just wasn't to be.

This game set D1 Elite records for points scored in a game (85), tries scored in a game (13), and points/tries scored by the losing side (41, 7). In only one other final has a team scored more than Life's 44 points, and that was Lindenwood's 54 in 2021. 

Life University 44
Tries: English, Haughey, Kocaj, Taulua, Vivao, Salisbury
Convs: Mason 4
Pens: Mason 2

Lindenwood 41
Tries: Tafuna 4, Brice, Ferguson, Jersey
Convs: Metz 3 

Past D1 Elite Finals:
2015-16 Penn State 15 BYU 5
2016-17 Penn State 26 Life 14
2017-18 Lindenwood 36 Life 8
2018-19 Lindenwood 24 Life 21
2019-20 No Final PLayed (COVID)
2020-21 Lindenwood 54 Life 12
2021-22 Lindenwood 21 Life 0
2022-23 Lindenwood 17 Life 15