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So how did it happen? Cal, the team that never loses to domestic opposition (three times in the previous 15 seasons) were beaten by St. Mary’s on Sunday.
Some of the reasons can linked to how Cal is a relatively young team. Certainly youth was a factor when the Bears lost to Cal Poly earlier this season. But it has to do, also, with what St. Mary’s has accomplished in the last several years.
Remember, St. Mary’s has lost their starting openside flanker, scrumhalf, flyhalf, wing and fullback to injuries this year. They got their No. 8, Joe Brophy, back for this game, but only because his replacement, Jamie Borup, came down with the flu.
What they did, though, was put all that stuff aside. Captain Andrew Cook delivered the message from coaches Tim O’Brien and Johnny Everett – forget about injuries. Stop whining that such-and-such a player is gone. Don’t dwell on it, just support the 22 playing for the 1st team that day and get on with it.
The mentality form the beginning of the season has been “no excuses” and that’s what happened. Cook, Matt Crawford and Robert Carlson were the players central to that approach. If they hadn’t bought it, the sell job from the coaches would have been hard.
Secondly, St. Mary’s isn’t intimidated by Cal. The two teams played each other last year and, until the final ten minutes, the game was at least somewhat in question. Chastened by the tries Cal scored off St. Mary’s mistakes, the Gaels took those lessons and worked on them.
They went back to their schedule and put together a list of opponents that included UBC, Utah, BYU and some strong clubs. O’Brien wanted his team to be challenged, even to the point of losing games, if that’s what it took. And it did take that. They lost games, and have gotten better as a result.
Thirdly, it begins in the tight five. Long considered one of the best, if not the best, team in open play, St. Mary’s has formulated a tight five that can scrum against anyone. Anyone. Against Cal O’Brien made some changes, moving Nick Wallace (actually this was Everett's call - AG), who has been a prop most of his time in Moraga, up to the front row from lock, where he has been playing this spring. Matt Crawford slid over to hooker and Cook to flanker.
The move wasn’t a comment on Cook’s performance, the St. Mary’s captain has been excellent all season long, but a move to make sure the scrum performed to its maximum. It did. Cal was outscrummed, and anyone else who plays St. Mary’s can expect similar treatment.
And fourth, it’s about tough love. O’Brien can talk positively about
his players and say stuff like “I don’t know, we’re just a bunch of guys
trying to put together a rugby team.” But he has had some tough decisions
to make, too, removing people from the team.
O’Brien said you can have addition by subtraction, and it’s true. As his coaching rival, Jack Clark, has often said, you can end up doing the wrong thing because you’re afraid players will leave your program, but in the end players gravitate toward a college program that’s put together the right way.
O’Brien has created a team that maybe isn’t for everybody, but it’s the right one for a large group of players.
Cook and O’Brien have used the same term when talking about the team – there’s a good vibe in the squad.
After Brendan Daly scored for Cal on an interception just before halftime, and gave his side a 15-5 lead on Sunday, Cook gathered the players under the posts.
He knew that Cal is most dangerous at the beginning and end of the halves, and was determined not to let the Bears turn this momentum shift into a complete turnaround.
“That try came from our mistake,” Cook told them. “We can fix that. We’re down two scores, but don’t get caught up with that right now. Let’s focus on scoring one try, and then we’ll worry about the next one.”
Of course St. Mary’s scored early in the second half, took the momentum
back, and won the game on a late penalty kick from Augie Heath.
For many colleges, perhaps that’s a key lesson. First, don’t let it get any worse, and then second, don’t focus on getting all the points back right now. Just get one try, and then focus on the next one.