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Cal v St. Mary's photos by Mike Geib

Sometimes it’s just the spectacle. Pat Vincent Field at St. Mary’s, overlooked by deep green hills was packed with rugby fans around every inch of its perimeter Sunday.

With so few games on tap on the day, many Bay Area rugby people took the short drive out of the city to see Cal take on their biggest local rivals. It was sunny, crowded, and the location of a top-notch rugby game.

St. Mary’s and Cal don’t really like each other, which adds a little more spice to the matchup, and it showed in the opening moments as the players simply launched themselves into each other.

St. Mary’s wanted to disrupt Cal’s best-laid plans, and then jump on any sliver of a chance such disruption offered. Cal wanted to phase the Gaels to death – spin it and win the ruck, take it the other way, win the ruck, spot the gap you just created, and stick a wedge in it.

It’s a classic rugby match of differing styles, but what made it great was the caliber of players. Joe Brophy at No. 8 and Bubba Jones at flyhalf for St. Mary’s burst through gaps you don’t expect to see from Cal (mainly because they’re not there, but the Gaels find them anyway) and forced an early penalty.

Seamus Kelly for Cal slides out, and cuts back in a blink to open up an attack that puts blaine Scully away in the corner. Cal No. 8 Danny Barrett puts the hammer down from 80 meters out, swats away Jones and gallops in for a brilliant individual score. St. Mary’s prop Nick Wallace ejects from the pillar spot and wraps up Connor Ring before the Cal scrumhalf can pass from the ruck. It’s not only daring and exciting, it’s great athleticism.

In the end, Cal won because they were more successful more often in what they like to do. They showed great tenacity in holding off some concerted pressure from St. Mary’s. But St. Mary’s scored 34 points on the Bears – five tries thank you very much. That was almost twice was Cal has given up in their previous five CPD matches. Of course, Cal’s total of 60 carried the same type inglorious increase for St. Mary’s.

Some notable events: Jones breaks through for what could be a try for St. Mary’s. Derek Asbun catches him, but around the next. It’s the second such cover tackle by cal and earns Asbun a ten-minute break. St. Mary’s then spend the next 14 minutes trying to get a try out of this. It is, perhaps, the most tension-filled part of the game.

It starts with St. Mary’s taking the lineout, only Jones’s kick goes through in-goal, so it’s a scrum for Cal. The Bears, though, get hit with a free kick and you know St. Mary’s loved free kicks. Off they go, to the line. Crawford, Brophy, Carlson, Jones, Clark … they all have their goes. Finally unsung Cal lock Ryan Hodson rips the ball free. Cal tries to kick their way out, but it’s into the wind and they don’t get anywhere. Three times they kick to touch, only to have to defend a St. Mary’s lineout in their own 22.

Finally St. Mary’s gets quick enough ball to go wide on the wing, and James McTurk makes a tackle that pops the ball loose. Now the Bears figure they should run it out. They get to their 22 again. But a miscommunication regarding who will take the clearance kick means Ring passes between two players. Carlson, an outstanding flanker for St. Mary’s, is all over that, and pins Cal back near their line again. Then Ring takes an extra second to be sure of his pass, and Wallace flies onto him, flips him and around, and turns the ball over. Quick hands, and Tim Maupin jumps for a high pass and flicks it behind him to Max Heath for the try. It took 14 minutes, but in the end St. Mary’s has tied the ballgame 15-15.

Now, Cal came right back, won the ruck from the restart, and went wide to Dustin Muhn, who wasn’t going to be stopped. That’s an indication of how Cal beats you, because they don’t get down on themselves, they get even. But still, St. Mary’s showed they, and others, can push a good team like Cal up against the wall and squeeze until some points ooze out. It can be done.

Then the other big play is Barrett’s saunter down the wing. At the time, Cal had scored twice after halftime to make it 41-15. An insurmountable lead, of course, except St. Mary’s had every intention of surmounting it. They just needed a little time and a break or two. Camped in Cal’s 22, they didn’t squeeze. They turned the ball over. The Bears sent it wide quickly, and Barrett was off. In the last 20 minutes St. Mary’s outscored Cal 19-14. Not a huge amount, to be sure, but at least an indication of how they can win period of play. In the last 20 minutes of the first half the two teams tied 12-12. But the other 40 minutes went to Cal 34-3.

Some comments:
“They’re a good team and I don’t mean this to be a backhanded compliment, because I really do mean it as a compliment: they are the best team in the nation in fractured play. If somebody falls off a tackle or a kick gets missed, quick penalty, any of those kinds of moments they’re really good,” said Cal Head Coach Jack Clark. “When we forced the game into some shape we had the run of play. If you turn over the ball and if you get loose with the ball – I think that’s what we did a few times, we tried to play too much rugby – you play into their hands. We’re a good rugby team, playing rugby, but we’re not the best team in the nation in broken play, they are.”

On trying to get out of their own end, Cal flyhalf James Bailes said, “all season long it’s been something that’s come really easy. There was a lot of pressure on us and as you can see it was very tough. [But] it’s great preparation for us coming into the quarterfinals and semifinals. It’s what we need. They brought a level of physicality that … definitely surprised us.”

“We knew they are a really scrappy team and they’re not going to give up at all regardless of the scoreline. They’re a really hard team, really physical, quick, and they deserved all the points they got today,” said Cal captain and flanker Derek Asbun.

“We wanted to come out and play Cal at their own game, the whole physical stuff. We matched them early, but as soon as we let up on the gas pedal in our physicality they scored a bunch of tries,” said St. Mary’s captain and hooker Andrew Cook. “Cal’s scramble defense is excellent. They do a good job one guys is taking the ballcarrier and the other taking support. We said it before, we live by the way we play and we’ll die by it.”

Cook also said the team left some points on the field.

“Cal’s not a team that gets flustered too easily,” he said. “For us I am a little disappointed because we were in it. Our D was so-so in the beginning. I think one through fifteen has at least two missed tackles.”

“Behind the ruck we just played the referee. We talked to the referee and asked what was considered ball out. We took advantage, and once they put one hand on the ball we just came up,” said St. Mary’s prop Nick Wallace. “The coaches do a great job on our conditioning. We practice the whole year for Cal. We do ladders, the rowing, we run, run, run. We ended well but it all has to do with conditioning.”

And as for fractured play, St. Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien doesn’t always want fractured.

“We were fractured on defense. Cal caught us on some matchups. The speed of our defense was poor and the shape of our defense was poor. I don’t know if it was their guys. I think it was our lack of shape on defense. But when you play against a team like that, very skilled and plays at high speed, that’s the test.”