Cal rugby defeats Lindenwood in semifinals, advances to national championship

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Two games, two 43-22 scorelines, one field, one week apart — that’s the condensed version of the last two weeks of playoff rugby in Moraga, California. After three successful rounds of postseason play, Cal men’s rugby has advanced to the national championship. The Bears’ most recent triumph came over Lindenwood, 43-22, during Saturday’s semifinal.

Just one week after the Lindenwood Lions upset No. 1 Saint Mary’s College of California in Moraga by a score of 43-22, the Lions fell to the Bears by that same score on the very same field.

Cal struggled for the first 20 minutes of the game, finding itself stuck in its own defensive half without being able to execute an effective exit strategy. The Lions played a tight and crowded defense, swarming the Bears high on the field and preventing them from generating a consistent offensive method.

“We weren’t very good at getting out of our own end of the field,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “We’d win the ball, which was the hard part, and then our exit strategies weren’t that good, I think.”

Finding themselves down by seven midway into the first half, the Bears finally got themselves on the scoreboard with a penalty kick from junior flyhalf Elliot Webb.

The tide really turned for Cal in the 23rd minute. Senior wing Justin Dunn received a beautiful pass from senior fullback Aidan Flynn and then took off down the field for a massive run. Dunn scored a try, followed by a Webb conversion, which put the Bears up 10-7.

From that point on, Cal seemed reinvigorated with a frenetic energy, beating Lindenwood in both speed and strength on countless possessions.

During the remainder of the first half, the Bears scored two more tries and two more conversions — another massive run from sophomore wing Sam Cusano and a gritty run from sophomore scrumhalf Keanu Andrade. Despite a missed kick that led to a try and conversion for Lindenwood in the final minute of the first half, the Bears exited the first 40 minutes with a solid 24-14 lead.

“It’s a one man, one tackle mentality,” said fifth-year No. 8 Thomas Robles. “The honor of wearing the blue stripes and the responsibility that you have means that if there is someone running the ball at you, you have to tackle for the person to your left and the person to your right.”

The Bears extended their lead in the second half, pulling away from Lindenwood in the 50th and 60th minutes. Fifth-year prop Kevin Sullivan got the scoring going for the Bears in the second half, battling for a try in the 53rd minute. Dunn scored another try in the 62nd minute, and Cusano a second of his own in the 71st minute — the final nail in the coffin for the Lions.

Webb had a superb showing on conversions, going five for five throughout the course of the game, and contributing 13 of the Bears’ 43 total points.

The semifinal win pushes Cal into next weekend’s national championship game against Life University in Santa Clara.

“We were brave, and we were good in parts of the game,” Clark said. “We were dangerous with the ball from time to time and that helped us. And we had to play some really good defense against a big, strong team and I think we did pretty well at that.”

Sophie Goethals covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected]