Update 5/5/2018: This article has been updated to include quotes from Cal rugby head coach Jack Clark.
The saying stands, “It’s not about how you start; it’s about how you finish.” But in the championship game Saturday, Cal rugby’s start to the match ultimately wrote its story for the rest of the contest, and the story didn’t have a happy ending. The Bears fell, 60-5, to Life University in the national title game, unable to break the the Running Eagles’ undefeated season.
“We were second best from, really, the opening whistle, almost,” said head coach Jack Clark. “We had couple of good moments, but for the most part, you know, we weren’t really in the game.”
It has been a common theme this postseason that Cal has done a poor job of starting things off early in its games. After giving up the first try of the match in both the quarterfinals and semifinals, the Bears also gave up the lead early against Life in the championship.
True to their relentless style of play, however, the Bears always find a way to retaliate after giving up a lead — as if an alarm goes off signaling them to kick things up.
After a lineout, Cal secured a swatted ball, and junior fullback Troy Lockyear went off to the races. After a couple of risky passes, Life’s defense stopped the attack 2 meters away from the try zone.
Fifth year No. 8 Thomas Robles finally punched the ball in for the Bears, and a missed conversion kept Cal trailing, 7-5.
Things seemed to be looking up as Cal played hard defense and looked for defensive breaks at the other end. But a turnover by the Bears led to a long possession for the Running Eagles that ended with a penalty kick. Cal then found itself trailing, 10-5, and it was all downhill from there for the Bears.
Turnovers once again kept Cal from finding its rhythm, and a lot of opportunities were missed with lost lineouts, which is something the Bears have executed very well this season up until now.
After freshman fullback/center Seth Purdey broke out at the end of the half, giving the Cal faithful some hope, he threw the ball out of bounds with a bad pass, summarizing the Bears’ first 40 minutes of play.
Cal being pinned against the ropes is an unusual sight, as the team has blown out many opponents it has faced this season, but at the half, the Running Eagles had punched in 24 unanswered points, with a score of 29-5.
“I think we were outplayed across the board; there is no doubt our backs struggled,” Clark said. “We just — we weren’t as good.”
It seemed as though halftime was exactly what the Bears needed, as they pressured the Running Eagles for the first five minutes of the second half, eyeing a comeback.
Another lost lineout for Cal, however, quickly turned the the tables around back in Life’s favor as the Running Eagles’ fast break blew a near-knockout punch with a try close to the Cal bench, bringing the score to 34-5.
“I thought our plan was pretty good around lineouts,” Clark said. “I don’t think they surprised us much; they just executed well — there isn’t any one aspect of the play that went our way.”
The Bears put up a commendable fight the rest of the way, but they simply could not catch a break.
Every time Cal broke off some tackles and started running with open space in front, the Bears stopped themselves with a bad pass or a turnover of some kind. The rest of the match was mostly played on Cal’s end of the field, as good defensive plays were hindered with disappointing offensive mistakes.
“You know, I’m sure it’s a multifaceted answer; I mean, obviously, if I knew the answer, I would have fixed it,” Clark said. “I think it had to do with our youth as a team and maybe just our mentality — and finally, I guess we’d have to say coaching, you know, just wasn’t able to fix the problem.”
The Running Eagles ended the game with a couple more tries, approaching their season average of 60-plus points, to get their third national championship and first-ever win against the Bears, 60-5.
The 15s season may have not ended how the Bears wished it would, but their dominant season and excellent performances all year should not be downplayed.