Eleven minutes. That’s all the time the Cal rugby team had to hold on for to end its regular season on a high note. Eleven more minutes, and the Bears would manage to finish a season marred by crucial injuries with just two losses. Eleven more minutes and the team would complete the upset of Saint Mary’s, currently considered by many to be the top team in the nation, in front of their home supporters.
But in those 11 minutes, the Gaels proved why they top the list of this year’s national contenders. With 11 minutes left in regulation, Saint Mary’s overcame — you guessed it — an 11-point deficit, scoring two critical tries to shock Cal 27-24 in an extremely tight contest.
Until the 69th minute, all had been going in the home team’s direction, on both sides of the ball. This effort was led in large part by the team’s emerging underclassmen, who proved they have the mental strength and talent needed for an upcoming playoff run.
Freshman winger Sam Cusano opened up the scoring midway through the first half, and his exemplary speed served to open up the pitch for his fellow attackers on the front line.
Scrumhalf Keanu Andrade, the second of Cal’s five starting freshmen, scored a huge try in the final minute of the first half to put his team up 19-10 going into halftime. Andrade has been very successful at scrumhalf during his short time with the team, and his unique ability to act as a makeshift fourth forward has earned him a lot of time with the starting squad. He will be looked upon during the postseason to continue creating offensive chances against the country’s top defenses.
A new name to look out for is that of sophomore flanker Nic Mirhashem. Mirashem has not seen the field much this season, but was named a starter prior to Saturday’s thriller. He made the most of his opportunity and scored the Bears’ final try, which came with less than 20 minutes to go in the game and gave Cal the 11-point lead.
Defense had been a focal point during the week before the game. In addition to solidifying tactics used throughout the season, the team had added a couple defensive strategies in the mix, and it did pay off for a majority of the game.
Before the Bears’ defense collapsed late, they had only allowed a single try from the Gaels, and the game plan seemed to be working perfectly. Once the team got to closing the deal, however, Cal showed a rare lack of clarity and decisiveness on the ball, which allowed its opponent to steal the win.
Saint Mary’s is well-known for its ability to dominate possession and win territorial battles, and in those final 11 minutes, the Bears allowed the Gaels to do just that. Cal was uncharacteristically shaky on offloads, which allowed Saint Mary’s to keep the ball and execute swift offensive plays down the stretch. The Bears also failed to retain control of the field position contest, kicking away many balls they should have opted to keep.
Great teams can capitalize off their opponent’s mistakes, and Saint Mary’s did just that in those final 11 minutes, scoring 14 unanswered points and coming out on top.
Nikhil Bhumralkar covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].