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For a program as decorated as Cal, there aren’t very many firsts still on offer. But before the Golden Bears backed up their Varsity Cup title with a fourth-straight Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship win Sunday, no DI men's collegiate team had ever claimed 15s and 7s titles in the same year.
“After they got the Varsity Cup, they started talking about getting both of the championships, so I’m really happy for them,” Cal head coach Jack Clark said of his charges.
“We tried to focus on the game,” added tournament MVP Jesse Milne, “but I guess in the back of the mind we realized we had an opportunity to make history, and we had to make the most of it.”
To do it, Cal had to beat the Arkansas State Red Wolves in back-to-back games – in the pool finale Saturday evening and the quarterfinals Sunday morning. They ended up being the closest contests of the tournament for the Bears. In the pool game, Cal jumped out to a three-try lead, but Arkansas State battled back to pull within a score late. In the quarterfinal, Arkansas State claimed a 14-0 lead in the first half, and it was Cal who came back.
“It was very unfortunate to fall behind like that, but I thought the guys showed some great steel in methodically coming back in the second half. To climb back in at halftime was pretty fortunate,” said Clark, who saw his Bears come from behind in the Varsity Cup semifinals against Army and final against BYU earlier this spring.
“The guys are good about that. They keep their wits and show a fair bit of poise. They have a bit of belief in each other. We’re a pretty highly conditioned team, so that’s never been an issue. I think the guys thought, if something goes wrong, we can fix it."
And they did, erasing the deficit by halftime and claiming a two-score victory. The Bears didn’t trail at any other time in the tournament. In the semifinal, they beat Arizona comfortably, 38-5.
The championship game was more of a contest. Cal led 7-0 at halftime and was fortunate to do so. Advantage on a poor lineout throw from Cal wasn’t allowed to play out, ruining a pretty good scoring chance for the Bruins, and a questionable double movement call negated a UCLA try later in the half. But the Bears got up 19-0 before allowing UCLA a score and eventually piled 31 points on their old foe.
“We know a bunch of guys on their team, they know a bunch of guys on ours, we always know that each of us bring our best efforts when we play each other, and they played like that, we did that, and it’s always a good time,” Milne said of the Bruins.
“UCLA’s a tough team. They’re a hard team to break down,” added Clark. “We know them pretty well, so in some ways it’s sweeter because we know they’re a good team and they’re well coached. Scott Stewart’s great with those guys. They’ve got a bunch of stud kids on that team. It’s a really good victory.”
Playing a role in the win was Cal’s ability to shut down a loop move that UCLA had used to open up holes throughout the weekend. The first time Bruins deployed it in the final, it was snuffed out quickly, and the second time it was clobbered, resulting in a turnover.
“It’s what they do, and we’re kind of used to it. We talked about it quite a bit just in prep. It comes late. If you’re two-on-two and three-on-three and you get locked on, that guy comes late and there’s a gap there for him, so the outside guys has to uncover slower to just bracket that ball carrier for an extra moment,” said Clark.
“The guys were good at it. They saw it coming, and they were good at it. It still looked dangerous to me, though.”
Dangerous throughout the competition was the hard-charging Milne, who created overloads with big carries routinely, earning the MVP award.
“I’m more happy with the Pete Dawkins Trophy, to be honest. It’s a nice honor, but it’s a team effort, for sure,” Milne, who graduates as a four-time CRC champion, said humbly of the award.
“I’ll remember this for the rest of my life, no doubt about it.”