Cal rugby completes comeback against UBC, stays undefeated

Doug Smith/Staff

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When one hears “Cal rugby” and “upset” in the same sentence, the assumption would be that the Bears suffered a surprising loss. But when the University of British Columbia is in Strawberry Canyon, however, Cal takes on the rare role of underdog.

And for the first time in two years, the underdog prevailed, as the Bears (14-0) defeated the Thunderbirds (16-5), 39-36, in a dramatic finish for the ages.

Cal outscored British Columbia, 17-5, in a second-half comeback to clinch the first leg of the “World Cup” series Saturday at Witter Field. The reserve side later completed the doubleheader at Witter Field, crushing USC, 145-0.

“I think the bottom line every time UBC comes into town — it’s going to be a really greedy match-up,” said fifth year No. 8 Thomas Robles. “We executed our game plan properly and I couldn’t be more proud of the boys for pulling off what was truly an underdog win.”

The Bears jumped out to a fast start with fullback/center senior Aidan Flynn’s try just two minutes into the match.

From there on, the first half went on as a blow-for-blow between two great teams. Four lead changes and two ties highlighted the first 40 minutes, but British Columbia capitalized on Cal’s mistakes to finish the half with 12 unanswered points.

Going into the half, the Thunderbirds held a 9-point lead, 31-22, putting the Bears in an unfamiliar position.

In the second half, Cal’s effort started to pay off as it all but stopped UBC, not allowing any tries until the Thunderbirds scored as time expired, which did nothing but slightly narrow the final margin.

The whole 80 minutes was an intense tug of war with no shortage of scuffles. The rivalry was best exemplified in the middle of the second half, which resulted in Cal junior flanker Nic Mirhashem receiving a yellow card even though spectators expected an opposing player to be given such a penalty.

“It’s a physical game — yellow card to them, yellow card to us 10 minutes out — and the focus is still on the battle for the ball,” Mirhashem said. “Extremely proud of the guys, 1 through 15, full effort. Everyone just knew what we had to do. Everyone just gave 100 percent of what they had in the tank.”

Late in the match, fifth-year flyhalf Jamie Howells’ tough penalty kick from 40 meters near the right touchline increased the deficit to two scores and secured the upset for the Bears. Howells, who was unlikely to play Saturday because of a previous injury, completed an almost perfect day, finishing 2 for 2 on penalty kicks and 4 for 5 on conversions in a game when every little detail was crucial.

“Our training staff is really good, so they kind of prepped me,” Howells said. “I trained on Thursday and it fell all right, and the adrenaline going into the game kind of pushed me through.”

Unlike previous years, the Bears had a high scoring outing against UBC, recording their most points since scoring 46 in 2012’s matchup in Vancouver. Saturday’s win turned into another statement from Cal’s high-pace offense and a critical building block for Cal’s platform to another national championship.

Five different Bears (two forwards and three backs) each produced a try, displaying the Bears’ wide ranging arsenal, capable of hitting opponents at all angles.

“They were probably a little vulnerable to us playing quick and expansive,” said head coach Jack Clark. “You got to stand up to them, you know, they are older, more mature, more physical; we had to stand up to them and I thought we did.”

The Cal faithful will have another chance to see the team Wednesday against Santa Clara at Witter Field before the Bears head north for the second leg of the “World Cup” series.

Can Sariöz covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz