May 2, 1998
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. - Cal and Stanford fight for the national collegiate rugby championship tomorrow after two tough and close-fought semi-finals Saturday.
The Bears had a desperate battle against Navy at Balboa Park, San Francisco, only gaining a solid lead with 10 minutes left in the match. A late try padded the score-line for a 37-23 final. Likewise Stanford staved off a determined Indiana team for a 38-25 win, also scoring a late try to improve the margin.
"We played bravely today," said Cal head coach Jack Clark. "It was a good Navy team. They ran awfully hard and were as difficult an opponent as we've had in a long time. We've got the bruises to prove it."
Navy were good enough to lead 20-17 at the half, aided by a strong wind at their backs. But with that wind behind Cal, the Bears put in three second half tries and added a penalty kick while holding Navy to a solitary penalty.
Cal's usually solid defense looked shaky early in the game, giving up a penalty and a try to spot Navy an eight point lead. Flyhalf Dave Stroble was hobbling due to cramps and wing Marc Vera was writhing on the ground after a bad ankle twist. And with flanker John Taylor playing out of position in the centers, Navy was able to make several breaks through the back line.
"It wasn't that J.T. couldn't make tackles," said Clark, "it's that he couldn't find the right lines to run to get to the right place. That's about familiarity with the position." After 30 minutes, regular center Deron McElroy, who has had limited practice time due to injury, took the field and Taylor rejoined the forwards. Together with regular partner Matt Gorham, the centers' defense tightened and their attack improved markedly. As testament that the Bears were regaining their composure, Gorham scored after a scrum move put wing Ryan Fried through Navy's defense. Cal lock Rob Flegel scored the team's other first-half try, a movement begun by flanker Kort Schubert's spectacular grab for possession from a re-start.
Stroble, meanwhile, shook off his cramp in time to make a try-saving solo tackle just before the break, after Navy had swooped on an errant Cal pass. And the experienced Nic Sliffe replaced Vera on the wing, making for a smoother offense after the half.
Both teams squandered attacking chances early in the second period, but Cal hooker Kirk Khasigian burrowed over the line in the 15th minute when the Bears took a quick penalty tap near the Midshipmen's line. Another quick tap saw Ryan Fried dive into the corner five minutes later, a movement started by a Gorham break in the centers.
With Cal out to a nine point lead, Navy edged back within one score thanks to a penalty kick. Stroble opened up the lead again with a penalty of his own and the Bears kept Navy deep in their half as the clock ran down.
Fried got his second try of the match with only seconds to play, after No. 8 Shaun Paga made yet another scrum move break to turn Navy's defense.
For Stanford, every try seemed to be answered by Indiana, and late in the game, the teams were less than a converted try apart. It was well into injury time before the lead was secure.
The Bears and the Cardinal met once during the regular season and Cal held the Scrum Axe with a 48-19 victory. But the win doesn't infuse the Bears' Jack Clark with confidence: "Stanford can beat anyone in the country on a given day." The Cardinal is renown for a quick strike style of rugby, often scoring long range tries from apparent defensive positions.
The biggest question may be which team is best able to play another tough match tomorrow. Stanford sustained no major injuries in their win, while for the Bears, Vera's status is still uncertain.
Cal and Stanford meet at 3.00 P.M. Sunday while Navy and Indiana fight for third place in the nation at 1.00 P.M. Both games are at Balboa Park.
1st Half 2nd Half Final Cal 17 20 37 Navy 20 3 23 Scoring First Half: Navy-Patrick O'Mahoney, penalty kick (3), 8th minute; Navy-O'Mahoney, try (5), 16th min.; Cal-Rob Flegel, try (5) and Stroble conversion (2), 19th min.; Navy-Shanti Holmes-McGovern, try (5) and O'Mahoney conversion (2), 25th min.; Cal-Stroble, pen. kick (3), 28th min.; Cal-Matt Gorham, try (5) and Stroble conv. (2), 33rd min.; Navy-Eli Burleson, try (5), injury time. Second Half: Cal-Kirk Khasigian try (5) and Stroble conv. (2), 15th min.; Cal-Ryan Fried try (5), 20th min.; Navy-O'Mahoney, pen. kick (3), 24th min.; Cal-Stroble pen. kick (3), 32nd min.; Cal-Fried try (5), injury time. Cal Record: 14-0-1