MORAGA, Calif. — The Saint Mary’s rugby team just wanted it more.
Playing to maintain their top spot in the Pacific Conference of the College Premier Division, the Gaels managed to overcome two second-half deficits on Sunday to grind out a 20-18 win over Cal (15-2). It was the first time Saint Mary’s beat the Bears since 1990. It also marks the first time since 2009 that Cal has lost twice in the same 15-player season.
“They played a hell of a game and they’re a great team this year,” said Cal junior Seamus Kelly. “A few unfortunate mistakes at really inopportune times really hurt us there.”
Moments before halftime, Cal’s Brendan Daly intercepted a pass and sprinted 60 meters to the left corner for a try, breaking the game open and giving his squad a 15-5 halftime cushion. That lead looked to be a safe one, as the game had featured little offense in the first 40 minutes of play.
But the Gaels (10-2) would come out of the second half as the aggressor. Saint Mary’s continued to dominate the scrums, and Cal started to beat itself by turning the ball over — a common theme for the young and inexperienced 2012 team. The Bears had numerous chances to really take control of the game, but a plethora of ball handling errors, forced passes and mental mistakes kept Saint Mary’s alive.
“We forced a couple of passes when we were behind them, and it relieved a lot of pressure off them,” said coach Jack Clark. “We just got too loose with the ball.”
The Gaels took their opening possession of the second half straight into Cal’s zone. The Bears initially held tough, keeping Saint Mary’s out of the try zone despite a series of close attempts. The Gaels then reversed the ball to the weak side, and wing Cooper Mallony pounded it into the corner of the try zone, cutting Cal’s lead to 15-12.
The Bears have struggled with teams with big front lines, and Sunday proved no exception. Cal continued to struggle to deal with the Gael forwards and found themselves on the wrong side of a 17-15 scoreline with 20 minutes left.
“They got after us more, and we didn’t have a chance to put pressure on their backs,” Kelly said “They’ve got really good forwards, and they took that platform away from us.”
The Bears immediately responded, drawing a penalty deep in Saint Mary’s territory. Fullback Jake Anderson put a penalty kick straight through the uprights, reclaiming the lead 18-17 with just over 10 minutes to play.
But Saint Mary’s would not be denied. The Gaels used their size and strength up front to keep the pressure on the Bears. The squad missed two late kicks, but flyhalf Augie Heath found the uprights on his squad’s third attempt in three minutes, nailing a 30-meter penalty kick from deep left to put his team up for good at 20-18.
“We played hard,” Clark said. “We just turned over a little too much ball. We had a chance to win, no doubt about it, but we just weren’t good enough.”
The game marked the official end of the 15-player portion of Cal’s season, one that might be considered disappointing by the team’s own standards; still, it was a reasonable finish considering the talent the Bears lost from 2011. The team will have to sit with the bitter taste in their mouths until they play in the national sevens tournament in June.