Top-ranked University of California came back from a 21-6 halftime deficit to defeat #5 St. Mary's 41-31 in an exciting match at Witter Rugby Field in Berkeley Saturday.
St. Mary's lived up to their reputation as a team that isn't intimidated by the Bears, and stung Cal early.
St. Mary's flyhalf Garrett Brewer and Cal fullback Jake Anderson traded penalties early and the teams were tied 6-6 11 minutes in. That score remained unchanged until the final 11 minutes of the first half. Brewer slotted a penalty to put his side up 9-6, and then St. Mary's wing Cooper Maloney scored and that, with Brewer's conversion, made it 16-6. Then Gaels prop Jordan Bouey bulled over and with halftime looming the Gaels led 21-6.
That's how the first 40 ended, but Cal started to haul in the Gaels in the second period, despite losing starting center Jared Braun and starting flyhalf Russell Webb to injury. Webb was replaced by another freshman, Harry Adolphus, and he helped propel the Bears forward with his hands and feet. Braun was replaced by sophomore Eakalafi Okusi; more on him later.
"We left a couple of easy tries unscored in the first half and I didn't think we played as error free as we are capable in the first 40," said Cal head coach Jack Clark.
For the third straight match, Cal made halftime adjustments that made a big difference. Captain Seamus Kelly broke into SMC territory soon after play resumed and offloaded to Brendan Daly, who passed it to sophomore scrumhalf Nicklas Boyer for the Bears' first try of the afternoon.
Five minutes later, No. 8 Tiaan De Nysschen picked up the ball from the base of a scrum 20 meters out and raced in between the posts, giving Anderson his only easy conversion, which trimmed the Saint Mary's lead to 21-20.
"After some unforced errors, we settled down at halftime," De Nysschen said. "The big thing was, everybody felt confident that we were going to win this game. We were down 15 points but our confidence didn't lack at all."
"Had we leaked a try early in the second half it would have been hard to chase this game down, but the team understood we had to win the first 15 minutes of the second half," said coach Clark. "And they did just that."
With the raucous crowd see-sawing back and forth in support of both teams, the Bears managed the ball well, recycling a four-phase sequence that ended with lock Danny Barrett scoring in the left corner for the lead. Anderson's difficult conversion from the sideline brought the crowd back to its feet.
The Gaels threatened to retake the lead seven minutes later when prop Nick Wallace scored a try, but Brewer's conversion was no good, leaving the Bears up, 27-26. Then Okusi raced in to extend Cal's lead to 34-26 with Anderson's conversion, and following that Josh Tucker touched down. Anderson added to the cushion with his third penalty kick to make it 42-26, but St. Mary's wasn't done.
Dino Waldren scored with four minutes to go (this is a correction from earlier reports that said Nick Wallace scored); the Gaels still had time, but Cal's defense held firm.
"Coach told us after the game to be proud of what we did. It's not easy for any team to come back from that deficit and the fact we did says a lot about this squad," Anderson said. Working with the first-year Adolphus on the heels of Webb's injury, Anderson said, "I was really impressed with Harry's performance today. The way he came in and played was remarkable."
"They were relentless in the second half," added Saint Mary's head coach Tim O'Brien, whose team held Cal tryless for just over 40 minutes.
Flanker Alec Gletzer was deservedly mobbed by fans after the match in appreciation of his performance. The junior's defensive stops included one of Cal's two goal-line stands to hold the ball up in goal, and his numerous hustle plays secured 50-50 balls on the ground and in the air, several of which he advanced deep into Gaels territory.
"They're a really talented team but we had to pick it up and follow our game plan," said Gletzer. "The fans were behind us 100 percent and that added to our full-team effort."
In the reserve-grade contest following the First XV, Cal defeated Saint Mary's 56-12.
Cal will now prepare to compete in the postseason Varsity Cup national championship, in which the Bears face Notre Dame in an April 20 super-regional showdown at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The higher-seeded winner between that outcome and that of the Navy-Dartmouth super-regional will host a semifinal April 27, giving Cal and its fans one more possible home game in the postseason followed by the national championship on May 4 in Provo, Utah.
Coach Clark added that today's win was important for his team and the entire eight-team field of the Varsity Cup: "With these two teams heading to different postseasons, it was additionally important that we win for the Varsity Cup Championship teams. Our focus now changes to Annapolis and our quarterfinal with Notre Dame, and we wish the Gaels the best as they finish out."
Tries: Boyer, De Nysschen, Barrett, Okusi, Tucker
Convs: Anderson 4
Pens: Anderson 3
St. Mary's 31
Tries: Maloney, Bouey, Wallace, Waldren
Pens: Brewer 3