Clearly, there are no better feelings in rugby than winning a postseason game on a local rival’s home turf.
Cal rugby met the challenge that awaited in the D1A National Collegiate Championships quarterfinal against Saint Mary’s, winning 29-28 at the final whistle thanks to a decisive second-half performance. Cal is now slated to play BYU in Saturday’s semifinal.
As soon as they arrived, the Bears could feel their underdog status reinforced by a packed Saint Mary’s Stadium cheering for the higher-seeded Gaels. The atmosphere generated powerful momentum for the Gaels, as they logged two tries in the 15th and 25th minutes.
As the match entered the final 10 minutes of the first half, Cal took control of the ball and stopped conceding territory. Solomon Williams’ efforts to eject the ball from a ruck freed up senior Max Clark in open space, and none of the Gaels could stop his incredible dash from the 50-meter touchline to the in-goal area. Clark dotted down Cal’s first try, but Max Schumacher’s conversion missed the target.
However, Saint Mary’s punched back and grabbed a third try in the 34th minute. Down by 19 points, head coach Jack Clark’s players knew they had to score before the 40-minute mark to stop the bleeding.
Flyhalf Schumacher stepped up in the face of adversity: Frustrated by his earlier failed conversion, he found his way past the Gaels’ defense to score Cal’s second try of the afternoon. He slotted the conversion between the posts, putting Cal back in the contest just before halftime.
The referee blew the whistle for the intermission with Cal trailing by 9 points.
Saint Mary’s won the first round and almost knocked out Cal, which was struggling to contain the Gaels’ powerful forwards and relying on individual performances to stay in the game.
The Bears came back with much better execution right at the start of the second half. Structuring a Cal attack in its own camp, Schumacher spotted a gap in the backfield coverage. He punted the ball on a sideline angle, and Cal won a 50-22, meaning that it had possession in try-scoring range.
Cal did not spoil this offensive opportunity. After the lineout, the call announced by the backs successfully sent freshman Rand Santos to the Gaels’ try zone. Schumacher’s conversion sailed in the middle of the uprights, narrowing the gap to 2 points.
Cal then took the lead at the 59-minute mark when substitute Kealan O’Connell surprised the Saint Mary’s defense and crossed the whitewash. The lead change would be the first and the last of the game.
Clark substituted three players in the second half to inject freshness to the side. It paid off again six minutes before the end of the game: Schumacher rewarded Cal’s collective efforts and kicked a penalty goal to stretch the Bears’ lead to 29-21.
The final two minutes almost saw Cal let its lead slip. Saint Mary’s scored a converted try on Cal’s blind side and collected the final possession past the 80-minute mark. The blue and gold mustered a forced turnover to seal the win.
Cal finally avenged its regular-season home defeat and last year’s semifinal loss against the Gaels. It is now switching gears to host the BYU Cougars, who handled business 62-31 against No. 1 seed Central Washington.