BERKELEY – Faced with a 15-point halftime deficit against a fiery Saint Mary’s squad, the Golden Bears went on 21-point run and beat the Gaels, 42-31, Saturday on Witter Rugby Field. On a brilliant afternoon in Strawberry Canyon, a capacity crowd witnessed a bona fide barnburner in which California finished its regular season at 19-0 and SMC fell to 11-2 with its first collegiate loss of the spring.
Cal found the fortitude to overcome a difficult first half that left them trailing without two starters, inside center Jared Braun and flyhalf Russell Webb, who were injured in the first 40 minutes. Webb was replaced by another freshman in Harry Adolphus, who helped propel the Bears forward with his hands and feet, and Braun was replaced by sophomore Eakalafi Okusi, whose try in the 65th minute proved to be the gamewinner.
Fullback Jake Anderson got off to an unlucky start as his first placekicking attempt, a 30-meter penalty kick that caromed no good off both uprights, but he went on to put in another very valuable performance, connecting on his next three penalties and 4-of-5 conversions, including two back-to-back from along the left touchline, to bolster the Bears’ momentum during the decisive second stanza.
“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.”
The match was tied twice in its early stages, with Anderson and Gaels flyhalf Garrett Brewer trading kicks to knot the contest at 3-3 and 6-6. Brewer’s third penalty got Saint Mary’s in front at 9-6, followed by a try from SMC winger Cooper Maloney that Brewer converted. When Gaels prop Jordan Bouey went into the try zone late in the first half, Brewer’s conversion was wide but the visitors went into the break leading, 21-6.
“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 dominant differences. 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. After Okusi’s try, Josh Tucker touched one down and Anderson stroked his third three-pointer before Wallace added his second try of the match for the visitors, but that proved to the Saint’s Mary’s last stand, as Cal refused to allow SMC anything further.
“They were relentless in the second half,” said Saint Mary’s head coach Tim O’Brien.
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.”
After the Varsity Cup, Cal will travel to the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s June 1-2 in Philadelphia.
The Scoring Timeline vs. Saint Mary’s:
03:00 Jake Anderson 3
06:00 SMC (Garrett Brewer) 3
09:00 Jake Anderson 3
11:00 SMC (Garrett Brewer) 3
29:00 SMC (Garrett Brewer) 3
34:00 SMC (Cooper Maloney) 5, (Garrett Brewer) 2
38:00 SMC (Jordan Bouey) 5
Halftime Score: California 21, Saint Mary’s 6
42:00 Nicklas Boyer 5, Jake Anderson 2
47:00 Tiaan De Nysschen 5, Jake Anderson 2
53:00 Danny Barrett 5, Jake Anderson 2
60:00 SMC (Nick Wallace) 5
65:00 Eakalafi Okusi 5, Jake Anderson 2
67:00 Josh Tucker 5
70:00 Jake Anderson 3
76:00 SMC (Nick Wallace) 5
Final Score: California 42, Saint Mary’s 31
Cal 1st XV vs. Saint Mary’s:
15. Anderson, 14. Tucker, 13. Kelly ©, 12. Braun (Okusi @ 30:00), 11.
Battaglia, 10. Webb (Adolphus @ 40:00), 9. Boyer, 1. Mohr, 2. Hyjer, 3.
Hurrell (Davenport @ 21:00, Hurrell @ 31:00, Davenport @ 77:00), 4.
Barrett, 5. Daly (Purdy @ 45:00), 6. O’Beirne, 7. Gletzer, 8. De Nysschen