The PPL Park crowd has been blessed with a bevy of USA 7s CRC matches that came down to the wire, and the California v Dartmouth semifinal was among the best.
Cal got up during the second minute of play when Ahmed Chehade took the offload at pace and hopped over the breakdown, only to be brought down hard around Dartmouth’s 22 meter. The ball quickly worked wide and found Dartmouth understaffed, enough for Jake Anderson to touch down, 5-0.
As one would expect, both sides were very disciplined on defense. Cal had a little more success in the ground-and-pound, as Seamus Kelly was able to get Cal moving forward through the middle, but Dartmouth’s Paul Jarvis also did well to commit some extra defenders to bringing him down and opening up some space out wide.
That’s how Dartmouth’s first score evolved. The Big Green methodically worked the middle and kept possession even though the yardage wasn’t as plentiful as games past. But Madison Hughes only need a little room to turn his breakaway down the sideline into points, 7-5 to Dartmouth after Derek Fish’s conversion.
Dartmouth had the opportunity to add to their lead when a couple of offsides penalties kept the ball in the Big Green’s hands. Working downfield, Dartmouth was ready to launch Fish and Huges again, but a low pass ended in a knock-on and turnover.
Play gets moving again and suddenly it’s Cal near midfield with a penalty. Kelly muscles through the middle, keeping Dartmouth clingers-on at bay until hitting Ahmed Chehade at pace. Impossible to arm-tackle, Chehade fended his lone defender for the try, which Alex Aronson converted, 12-7 to Cal into the break.
Cal took their biggest lead of the game in the third minute of the second half. Dartmouth was battling to get out of their 22 meter, but the Golden Bears were very effective in punishing any receiver that took a pass flat-footed. As Dartmouth tried their chances out wide, Hughes knocked on and Lombardo was right there for the pick-up and quick try. Aronson’s conversion made in 19-7.
This is where Dartmouth’s thrilling comeback begins. Patient play preceded another hopeful pass out to Hughes on the wing. Small yet speedy, Lombardo looked sure to swallow up Hughes as he tracked him down the line, but Hughes kept his feet as the Cal player dove for his boots. Just as Cal’s corner-flagger planted Hughes, Hughes managed to hit Fish back inside – just as Cal’s cornerflagger tagged the him – and the scrumhalf centered and converted his try, 21-14.
With time winding down, Jarvis got the final breakaway of the match. Jarvis was alone as he was brought down just short of the line, but a penalty to Cal for not releasing kept the ball in Dartmouth’s hands. It looked like the game was going to be all tied up as Dartmouth enjoyed an overload out wide, but James Sharpe knocked on the finishing pass as the stadium gasped in unison.
Cal was nearly out of trouble as the referee awarded a stalemated breakdown to the Golden Bears, but Dartmouth turned over the scrum and darted weak. The ball spun out to the back and center Kevin Clark made a go of it right under the posts. He looked to be held up but Sharpe came in for some driving support, and the referee eventually signaled for the try.
A tie game with a conversion right in front of the posts; Fish slotted it easily for the 21-19 lead with 43 seconds remaining.
Dartmouth stressed their ample stadium fans as they played out a penalty at midfield with time expired, but Fish finally kicked the ball to touch, and that was it.
Dartmouth advances to their second consecutive final against Arizona for the title.