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Two of the top college programs in the nation scrummed down on Saturday when the University of California-Berkeley and Saint Mary’s College of California played at Witter Field in Berkeley, Calif. The Bears held the lead for most of the game, but the highly anticipated match boiled down to the last ten minutes. Down 24-13, St. Mary’s battled back from a two-try deficit to win the game, 27-24.
St. Mary’s coach Tim O’Brien said the key to game was maintaining composure under pressure. “Not trying to take too many bites out of the apple to get back into the game. We had extraordinary composure. We had a chance in the second half to be blown up with regards to playing extended periods of defense and take on some penalties and we didn’t. We had six total penalties in the game. Finding a way to win when you are not at your best is fantastic. The key to the win was the guys keeping their heads.”
Despite solid play from his squad, the final fateful ten minutes of the game was firmly in Cal head Coach Jack Clark’s mind. “It was a good game. We are a little disappointed to let the game get away from us in the last ten minutes. I think we made some mistakes that are uncharacteristic of our team. We were a little bit optimistic with offloads and that cost us. We kicked some balls we shouldn’t have kicked. Take nothing away from St. Mary’s, they were good in the last 10 minutes and we weren’t.”
It was Homecoming for the Bears, but the Gaels did not make them feel at home early in the match. Cal successfully killed off a yellow card in the first quarter of the match, but literally caught the first try of the game. Seeing an opportunity, Gael flyhalf Mike McCarthy sent a kick to the endzone where Chris O’Donnell leaped for the reception and try. Dylan Audsley converted for the 7-0.
Cal responded in the 21st minute with a Sam Cusano scamper down the sideline. Unfortunately, Russell Webb’s conversion was off its mark and Cal trailed, 7-5.
St. Mary’s went back on offense to build on its lead, but the Bears’ defense turned into offense as Anthony Salabar intercepted a Gael pass for a 40-meter return. Russell’s conversion made the tally 12-7.
An Audsley penalty narrowed the lead to 12-10 with ten minutes left; however, Cal added another try before the half ended. An attempted Webb drop goal set the Bears in prime scoring position after SMC knocked the ball on the catch. Securing the scrum, Keanu Andrade rumbled through the heart of the Gael defense for the try. Webb slotted the conversion for the Cal 19-10 lead at the half.
After battling for the first 15 minutes of the second half, St. Mary’s had multiple shots at goal from the boot of Audsley. Only one kick reached its destination as SMC reduced Cal’s lead to 19-13.
The Bears regained their focus and physicality taking a rolling maul from a ten-meter lineout for a Nic Mirhashem try. The points after were wide, but Cal held a 24-13 lead less than 20 minutes remaining.
When St. Mary’s kicked back off to Cal, O’Brien indicated the next sequence was the defining moment of the game. “After our fifth penalty, they have a Cal lineout on our 30. In two phases, they get to the 22, hit a single runner, get to the 20 and turn the ball over. That’s the defining moment right there. They keep that ball, they score or a penalty and make the kick, it’s over. That error was a big moment. We kicked it back, they counterattack and Alec Barton stole the ball... If Cal is surgically precise at that point, we’re screwed. They made an error and we had the presence of mind to capitalize on it in a proper way.”
From there, those events set up the intense final ten minutes. Working out of its own territory, Cal coughed up the ball and a heads up play by Jack Carso found Aaron Matthews for the opportune try. The important conversion by Audsley saw the Cal lead cut to four points at 24-20.
With two minutes left, it was Matthews was the hero again after his team went the length of the field to score. Phase play and brilliant offloading highlighted the sequence where ultimately, Payton Telea pitched to Matthews for the dagger try. Audsley’s third conversion made it 27-24 to complete the comeback. Cal desperately attempted to claw their way into scoring position, but time ran out giving SMC the well-earned victory.
O’Brien said, “It’s great to play against a tough opponent. You find out all your weaknesses and they came out on days like this. No different than when we played BYU, these are games we need week in and week out.”
Regarding the Bears, O’Brien offered praise to his opponent saying, “every Cal kid is a threat and it was very clear they wanted to spread us if possible particularly in transition. You can’t take anything for granted against Cal. There is no team that’s is that loaded from top to bottom than those guys.”
For his own team, O’Brien was impressed by the play of Alec Barton, Kevin O’Connor and scrummie Holden Yungert. “Barton and O’Connor had insane work rates. Holden Yungert, who absolutely got the crap beaten out of him, was remarkable at #9. Holden is a workhorse and there’s not a lot to him. He can play ball and was born to play scrumhalf.”
With a bye in the first round of the Varsity Cup, Cal has the opportunity to heal and rest up before its first match on April 15th. When asked what his main takeaway was from the St. Mary’s game going into the postseason, Clark responded, “we had an 11 point lead with ten minutes to play and we played some of our worst rugby in that last period. It wasn’t all bad, it was just too speculative on our offloads and some kicks that we shouldn’t have made.”
“When you are playing good teams, you have to do your best to put yourself in a position to close them out,” Clark added. “We did that, but were able to close them out.”
St. Mary’s is immensely proud of this victory and hope that the momentum powers the Gaels through the postseason. The Gaels host Sacramento State next weekend before going on its annual Easter tour to Ireland and Scotland before the D1A Playoffs begin on April 22nd.