When former Major League Baseball player and manager Frank Robinson was playing for the California Angels in 1971, he famously told Time magazine that, “Close don’t count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.”
Unfortunately for the American Raptors in 2023, close don’t count in rugby, either.
Sunday afternoon marked the fifth time this season that the Raptors (1-10) dropped a match by single digits, falling 40-32 to Dogos XV in Córdoba, Argentina.
The second place Dogos (9-3) jumped on the Raptors from the opening whistle with a try from flanker Aitor Bildosola in the third minute of the match, wasting little time putting points on the scoreboard in their wire-to-wire win.
The cards that have plagued the Raptors all season hindered them again on Sunday afternoon, with Aki Pulu receiving his first yellow card of the season for a high tackle in the seventh minute. Dogos capitalized on Pulu’s absence when Mateo Soler punched in their second try of the match, and took a 14-0 lead after the conversion.
Playing a man down and in a 14-point hole, Ronan Murphy rumbled in for a try to get the Raptors on the board in the 17th minute. Lucas Gonzalez – the Raptors leading scorer in 2023 – drilled the conversion to get the Raptors back into the match.
Dogos responded with another try 11 minutes later to extend their lead to 19-7, but a missed conversion left the door open for a comeback in the remaining 10 minutes of the half.
The Raptors took this opportunity to walk the Dogos down. Cassh Maluia got things moving the Raptors direction when he ripped off a long run through the Dogos defense before the ball made its way out to wing Ramiro Moyano who scored his second try in as many weeks. Lucas Gonzalez added the conversion and then a penalty goal a few minutes later to get the Raptors to within two points with just four minutes from halftime.
When something happens once it’s by chance. When it happens twice it’s a coincidence. When it happens the third time it is a pattern.
For the third match in a row, the Raptors have given up a backbreaking try at the end of the first half that completely flipped the momentum and led to slow start to the second half.
On Sunday, it was Soler punched in his second try of the half to stop any momentum the Raptors were preparing to take into the locker room. His try and the ensuing conversion gave Dogos a 26-17 lead heading into the half.
The Raptors tried to shake the sleepy second half moniker that they’ve earned over the course of the last month when Gonzalez nailed a penalty goal in the 45th minute to get the Raptors back to within six points. That positive momentum was again thwarted by a yellow card when Shawn Clark was administered a 10-minute bid in the sin bin.
With Clark on the bench, Dogos rattled off two unanswered tries to jump out to a commanding 40-20 lead before Watson Filikitonga received an offload near the in-goal from Line Latu to get the Raptors back to within 13 points.
Filikitonga’s second half try follows another trend that has plagued the Raptors over the last three weeks. The Raptors have snapped out of every slow start to the second half over the last few weeks, but it hasn’t happened with enough time to salvage the match. Sunday was no different.
After Filikitonga’s try, Mikey Grandy was hit with a red card – the Raptors’ first of the season – for a dangerous tackle. Despite the man advantage, Ryan James scored his second try in two weeks in the 78th minute to cut deeper into Dogos lead. Ramiro Moyano wasn’t able to hit the tough conversion, and the Raptors fell 40-32.
While losing is frustrating, Sunday’s loss was another sign of the progress that the Raptors have made throughout the course of the season. Sunday’s match was the second in a row that the Raptors lost by single digits. If not for late first half tries in each of the last three matches, the Raptors could have very well ended up on the right side of those score lines.
Those are now part of the growing pains that the Raptors have experienced in their inaugural Super Rugby Americas season. These lessons are ones that they hope will lead to victories in 2024.
The Raptors have one more chance to not only jump into the win column for the second time in 2023, but also avoid finishing the year in the SRA cellar when they take on sixth place Cobras Brasil XV in Sao Paolo, Brazil on May 28.
Ronan Murphy, Ramiro Moyano, Watson Filikitonga, Ryan James
Lucas Gonzalez (3/3), Ramiro Moyano (0/1)
Lucas Gonzalez (2/2)
Aitor Bildosola, Mateo Soler (2), Faustino Sanchez, Boris Wenger, Franco Giudice
Julian Hernandez (5/6)