The Saint Ignatius rugby team received a rude welcome to the Worlds School Festival on Tuesday, facing a different style and a much higher level of play than exists in Ohio, or even the United States.
But on Friday, the Wildcats showed they belonged.
The Rugby Cats battled fiercely against all odds against Oakpark of South Africa, ultimately suffering defeat, 67-19, but showing the world they can play.
The match, played 1 pm locally in Cape Town, featured cooler temperatures after the previous evening brought rain and nicer weather. Nearly recovered from the effects of the lengthy travel and difference in food and climate, the Wildcats performed much better at the start of the game than on Tuesday.
Oakdale did strike first blood, though, muscling in the ball following a nice lineout at 4:20 of the match. The men from Oakdale, located near the center of South Africa between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth, touched it down after another well-executed scrum. But after that, the Wildcats dominated the possession.
The Rugby Cats made significant adjustments on rucks on offense. The forwards performed much better in protecting offensive rucks and trucked forward time after time in aggressive fashion, gradually pushing the ball forward.
Oakdale did tab another try off a nice play, but a determined, gradual effort of matriculating the ball into the try zone worked at the 20-minute mark. Nick Zolikoff did the honors of touching the ball down for the team's first try of the tournament, bringing smiles to the players' faces.
The South African side reached the "whitewash," as local rugby players call the try line, with a pair of efficient tries before the end of the half, but the Wildcats' improvement was evident despite a 29-5 advantage for Oakdale. In the first 35 minutes, the Rugby Cats held possession for near 60% of the time.
The Wildcats roared at the start the second. John Stuhldreher made a magnificent interception of an Oakdale pass and charged down the field with authority before eventually being taken down deep in Oakdale territory. Less than a minute later, Janniel Badeas touched it down for the Wildcats in triumphant fashion. Declan Boldy added two points to bring the score to 29-12.
Oakdale's forwards and backs started to work more in unison after grabbing the ball from the visitors after the ensuing kick. Oakdale dashed down the left sidelines for a try and added another down the middle thanks to great passing in between the forwards. As te clock hit 46 minutes, the Cats trailed, 39-12.
Another try went across for Oakdale at 51 minutes on a stolen ball and nice kick on a Wildcats' scrum play. Oakdale then finished it off after a good scrum.
The Wildcats managed to grab the ball back after that try, and pushed the ball down the field ast the 60th minute approached. An Oakdale yellow card helped further, allowing Sean Whalen to kick the ball in closer. With the ball very close to the try line, the Wildcats utilized a patient approach and eventually bullied the ball over the whitewash. Juan Pen did the honors for the third try of the day. Declan Boldy added two points to set the score at 53-19.
The last few minutes saw Oakdale notch a couple tries in garbage time, finalizing the score at 67-19, but the Wildcats' efforts impressed many in attendance.
Plenty of players deserve kudos for jobs well done, including Carl Felder, Tommy Lavelle, Alex Chura, Jivan Meguerditchian, Joe Molnar, Alex Schum, Max Zawodny, and Michael Volpe, among others.
The commentators on the broadcast noted the Wildcats' vast improvement. Legendary former coach of Springboks (South Africa's national rugby union team) Heyneke Meyer, who helped put the tournament together, gave the Wildcats a pregame pep talk and spoke highly of the team on the broadcast.
The Wildcats, currently ranked the No. 2 team in America by FloRugby, will stay for the closing ceremonies of the World Schools Festival on Saturday before heading back to the States. The Rugby Cats will fly from Cape Town to Istanbul, Istanbul to Boston, and finally Boston to Cleveland. The Rugby Cats will get back home on Monday at about 11:30 pm.
Next up: The world-traveling Cats will return to action next Thursday at No. 1 St. Edward at 7:30 pm, renewing a years-old rivalry with the boys from Lakewood. The Eagles are 6-1 on the year following wins over Sacramento Jesuit and Mira Costa and a loss to Toowoomba Grammar (Australia) during the squad's trip to the West Coast.