SALT LAKE CITY – The Golden Bears scored five tries and fought for 80 minutes Saturday in the Varsity Cup National Championship final, battling back from a 15-point deficit to within three points before BYU pulled away to repeat as champions with a 43-33 win over California.
The Cougars (18-1) notched seven tries, two by Fijian fullback Josh Whippy, and New Zealand flyhalf Jonny Linehan added eight points for BYU on four conversions (4-of-7).
Cal winger Andrew Battaglia scored two tries and sophomore flyhalf Russell Webb added another for the Bears (18-3, 5-0 PAC), while two replacements, sophomore Miles Honens and senior Alex Bowman, found the try zone to end each half. Fullback Jake Anderson added eight points on his 4-of-5 conversion kicking.
“All credit to Cal – we knew we were in for a battle and they made us work hard for it,” said Cougars head coach David Smyth. “That’s a very good Cal team.”
BYU has now won the title contest vs. the Bears for the third time in eight attempts (2009, 2013-14). The Cougars’ all-time record against the Blue and Gold stands at 3-9.
“They were very, very good today,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark of the Cougars. “They’re the national collegiate champions on merit. Beyond BYU, I’m proud of the Varsity Cup universities which comprised this postseason. It has been a great tournament and we all salute the Cougars as our champion.”
Cal remained in the match despite many self-imposed woes that came in the form of sprayed passes and dropped balls, an accomplishment coach Clark credited to the play of his forwards.
“Our forwards were magnificent today – how much possession they won for us, how good their defense was – I thought they bettered the BYU forwards, and that’s a big statement,” Clark said. “I’m really proud of the platform we had but, Seamus Kelly aside, we just couldn’t hold our nerves in the backs. We had a lot of turnovers there.”
The first three-time captain in Cal’s 132-year history, Kelly competed in his final collegiate 15s match Saturday, as did starters Tanner Mohr at hooker, Patrick Coleman at lock, Jack O’Beirne in the back row and Tiaan De Nysschen at No. 8.
“It’s tough, said Kelly. “You always want to go out on a winning note but I’m proud of the effort the guys put forth. Credit to BYU.”
The Bears began the match with a gusty wind at their backs but put themselves under pressure soon after the opening whistle with the first of several passes that failed to find their mark. One of those opportunities for BYU resulted in its first try by the bruising New Zealander Paul Lasike, the BYU gridiron back whose score was converted by Linehan.
Cal countered quickly with Battaglia’s first try in the right corner, which was followed by a difficult touchline conversion by Anderson to tie the score at 7-7.
The Bears withstood several minutes of play in its own end before the Cougars broke through with a try by wing Jordan Lowry. During the sequence, De Nysschen was injured and the Bears played with 14 men over the ensuing several minutes as the senior tried to remain in the contest, but De Nysschen knocked on his next touch and ultimately could not continue, replaced by Nick Salaber.
Anderson missed a penalty attempt from 50 meters at the 25th minute (0-for-1) and five minutes later, BYU hammered into the left corner, where replacement back-rower Joe Pikula touched down a try but Linehan could not convert. Three minutes after that, Linehan missed his attempted 24-meter penalty off the right post (0-for-1) and prop Scott Walsh secured a rebound that was bouncing perilously close to being recaptured by the Cougars.
Brave play up front allowed the Bears to escape many but not all of their self-imposed errors. Following a BYU penalty, Cal overthrew its lineout at midfield and the Cougars chipped ahead. Harry Adolphus retrieved the ball but missed Anderson on his pass, leading to a Chris Wernli try the left corner that left Cal trailing by 15.
Clark sent in Honens for Adolphus and just before halftime, the sophomore from Orinda, Calif., found the try zone after Webb dummied and dashed through the first line of the BYU defense. Anderson’s conversion made it an eight-point deficit at the half, 22-14.
The Bears came out composed to start the second stanza and threatened inside BYU territory with more than 10 phases before a penalty relinquished possession back to the Cougars. But Cal got the ball back and after rushes upfield by Kelly and Paul Bosco were followed by a BYU penalty, Battaglia’s second try at minute 46 made it a three-point contest at 22-19.
While the grit and determination of the Cal forwards prevented BYU from running away from the Bears, handling errors continued to plague the Blue and Gold. A rush into contact by Eakalafi Okusi at minute 51 led to a turnover in the ensuing ruck, and the Cougars’ counterattack ended with a try by South African scrumhalf Luke Mocke. Ten minutes later, another turnover at the breakdown following a BYU tackle of Alec Gletzer resulted in a numbers advantage for the Cougars and Whippy scored his first try.
The Bears remained on the offensive and, though fatigue appeared to flatten their attacking lines, Webb found a hole in the Cougar defense to trim the BYU lead to 36-26 with his try followed Anderson’s conversion with 12 minutes to play.
Heart aplenty could not overcome several more errant passes and dropped balls by the Bears before Whippy’s second try gave BYU its biggest lead at 43-26. Bowman bulled into the try zone for Cal’s final score, converted by Anderson, but time had run out on Cal’s chances to come back.
The Bears return to Berkeley to prepare for final exams and graduation ceremonies before they travel for the fifth straight year to the Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s, held in Philadelphia May 31-June 1 and broadcast once again by NBC Sports Network and NBC. For CRC tickets, please make all purchases via http://www.usasevenscrc.com/tickets/cal.
The Scoring Timeline vs. BYU:
04:00 BYU (Paul Lasike) 5, (Jonny Linehan) 2
13:00 BYU (Jordan Lowry)
30:00 BYU (Joe Pikula) 5
34:00 BYU (Chris Wernli) 5
Halftime Score: BYU 22, California 14
46:00 Andrew Battaglia 5
51:00 BYU (Luke Mocke) 5, (Jonny Linehan) 2
61:00 BYU (Josh Whippy) 5, (Jonny Linehan) 2
78:00 BYU (Josh Whippy), (Jonny Linehan) 2
Final Score: BYU 43, California 33
The Team vs. BYU:
15. Anderson, 14. Battaglia, 13. Kelly (c), 12. Okusi, 11. Adolphus (Honens @ 30:00), 10. Webb, 9. Bosco (Boyer @ 67:00), 1. Walsh, 2. Mohr, 3. Vrame, 4. Kondrat, 5. Coleman (Bowman @ 75:00), 6. O’Beirne (N. Salaber @ 22:00, Hendrickson @ 67:00), 7. Gletzer, 8. De Nysschen (O’Beirne @ 22:00, Sweet @ 75:00)