Cal rugby has faced some formidable obstacles off the field this season — the Bears battled for reinstatement, traveled for every game, and had just half a field for practice.
But on Saturday evening in Sandy, Utah, the most challenging opponent stood on the pitch in the form of a physical and massive BYU squad.
And Cal overcame its final hurdle at Rio Tinto Stadium the same way it handled its other challenges.
“Tackle, tackle, tackle,” junior No. 8 Danny Barrett said.
In front of a record-setting crowd of more than 11,000 fans, coach Jack Clark’s squad made its share of big stops — none were bigger than a lockdown of the Cougars’ scrum in the game’s waning minutes.
That final sequence secured a 21-14 win and the program’s 26th national championship.
With five minutes to go in the game before injury time, BYU marched inside the 22-meter line looking to tie, but Cal stole the ball in the lineout. A few minutes later, as they neared the goal line again, the Cougars dropped the ball on another quick lineout.
BYU (15-1) wound up with the ball once more near the beginning of injury time, but the Bears simply overpowered the Cougars’ scrum to regain possession and seal the title game victory.
“It definitely came down to belief,” senior flyhalf James Bailes said. “Belief in the fact that we were always going to win this game.”
While the Bears never trailed, they needed crucial defensive stands throughout a physical contest that captain Derek Asbun likened to a “heavyweight title match.”
The Bears (27-0) opened the game on the defensive as BYU spent much of the first 20 minutes on Cal’s half of the field. After turning the Cougars away, the Bears put the first points on the scoreboard when Asbun powered through two defenders for a converted try in the 23rd minute.
Cal’s defense wrapped up the victory, but Bailes provided the offensive highlights on the evening. Both teams scored a pair of first half tries, but the Bears were able to jump ahead with Bailes’ kicking. His two penalty kicks in the first half accounted for Cal’s 13-7 lead going into the intermission. By the end of the game, the match’s MVP registered 11 of Cal’s 21 points — chipping in three total penalty kicks and one try conversion.
However, Bailes contributed more than just his golden foot in the team’s winning effort. The Cape Town, South Africa native fed sophomore outside center Seamus Kelly for his 61st minute try that extended the Bears’ advantage to 21-7.
And while BYU could not get out of its own way when it mattered most, Cal demonstrated possibly its best ball retention of the season. As the final whistle blew, the Bears were able to enjoy the rewards of a hard fought game and season.
“To have gone through everything that this Cal team and the coaching staff has gone through,” Bailes said, “and know that you can come through with a win like this despite the distractions is something very special.”
Christina Jones covers rugby.