GRR on X  GRR on Facebook GRR in Instagram GRR Vimeo Library GRR on YouTube RuggaMatrix America Podcasts Support GRR on Patreon

Navy Caps Off 18-0 Season With Dramatic Final Win Over Cal

irish rugby tours

Navy Caps Off 18-0 Season With Dramatic Final Win Over Cal

Opp goes in for the game-winner. Olly Laseinde photo.

One of the most enjoyable D1A seasons in recent memory had to end this way.

In one of the best national finals in D1A history capped off the season with Navy's come-from-behind victory over Cal. 

Cal came into the game with the memory of a 33-28 loss to the Midshipmen in March. To deal with Navy's unceasing defensive front, the Bears had a plan, and it was working. The plans was essentially to be quick with the ball whenever they could. Whe the ball was available, forwards would pick-and-go, forcing Navy to devote more and more players to close-in defense.

The result was Navy was making tackle after tackle, and also they felt forced to slow the ball down. That led to several penalties for not rolling away, and Cal was making ground. Eventually the dam broke. Big runs from the likes of Emilio Shea and Luke Freeman got Cal penalties and eventually a chance to run with it. Flyhalf Max Schumacher made a half-break and offloaded to outside center Kealan O'Connell, and the center cut back to finish off a well-taken try. Schumacher converted and it was 7-0.

Moments later, Cal came right back to pressure. A massive break by No. 8 Alex Aguero, beating several tacklers, put Cal back deep into the Navy 22, and the forwards finished it off, with prop Emilio Shea picking up and powering over. Up 12-0 Cal had no trouble doing the same thing to get themselves into Navy territory, and when a kickable penalty offered itself, Schumacher put the kick over to lead 15-0.

Right after that there was a break for water on a hot Houston afternoon, and Navy captain Lewis Gray pulled his team together and ripped into them. They weren't working hard enough to roll away and get back on their feet; they weren't executing on offense; they were committing too many penalties.

A different Navy team came out of that break. They managed to get the ball back and decided that kicking it away was sub-optimal. So they went to pushing the phases and forced Cal into mistakes. A penalty led to a Navy lineout and while the Midshipmen had suffered some trials in their lineouts, this one was perfectly executed, with a maul taken over the line and prop Williams Webb touching it down.

That try, along with Roanin Krieger's conversion make it 15-7. As the first half came to a close Navy was working it through the phases again. Cal defended superbly and didn't let Navy get anywhere ... until No 8 Ben Haugh bashed through and was prevented from scoring by a desperate cover tackle. But the Navy forwards raced in to consolidate. Slowly they got closer and closer to the line before scrumhalf Sean MacLaney fakes passing it to a forward, opening up a hole through which the #9 happily scampered. Try Navy, and Krieger converted to make it 15-14 at halftime.

It was highly unlikely that Cal would come into the second half without a plan, and they did indeed come in looking to put Navy's defense under pressure. Navy, for their part, had to dislike how many times they coughed up possession.

Cal came out hard and Navy was on the back foot in the second half. Still the Midshipmen held on and it took a broken play to break through. Out of a Cal rugby right at the 22 the ball kind of squirted out. As a Navy player looked to dive onto the ball, Cal center Kealan O'Connell toed the ball back and to the left. It rolled right to fullback Joe Kirston, who put on a couple of sidesteps and was through. Schumacher converted again and it was 22-14 for Cal. 

More bad news for Navy as their formidable No. 8, Ben Haugh, had to leave the game injured Haugh had been immense for Navy, but not doubt he had to leave.

As the game went on, Navy met with frustartion. A long period on the tryline ended up with a turnover and a long kick downfield. But midway through the second half Navy got a penalty. They took the lineout and, again, despite some lineout difficulties on the night, this one was nabbed correctly and the maul got going. This was an impressive maul as the ball was shuttled back from Webb, who usually handles it at the back, to Ryan Bullock. The maul itself looked like it might be pushed into touch, but the solid work of Tanner Russell and Austin Taylor (on for Haugh) kept it infield and going forward.

Cal had no answer and the Navy maul marched over the line for Bullock to score. Krieger was good once again on the kick and we were back with a one-point game 22-21.

Both teams had chances after that. Krieger had a kick over the top that he almost chased down. Center Ryan Santos, dangerous all evening for Cal, sliced through. But a few phases later a mishandled pass gave the ball back to Navy.

Navy once again were stymied at the tryline, but came back to attack off a clearance kick. Shaking things up they decided to run quick hands to Landon Opp, the flyhalf lurking on the touchline. The Cal player watching that side cut in to keep an eye on a tackle, and then turned around to track Opp. He fell down. Opp was unmarked, and raced down the sideline.

Opp took off and cut back to score under the posts. Krieger converted and Navy led 28-22.

The game still had 10 minutes left on the clock. Much of those 10 minutes were played inside the Navy half and several players—Russell, Gray, Jack McMahon—made key defensive plays.

Finally Navy got the ball back and ran the clock out with a startling three minutes of forward surges before MacLaney kicked the ball into touch.

Navy had done it.

For Cal, Santos, Schumacher, and Luke Freeman were among their best. Freeman was able to make the gainline repeatedly, while scrumhalf Solomon Williams was a constant threat.

But it was Navy's year. They never broke, and battled until the end. The turnaround after 20 minutes was key for them, as the Midshipmen stopped trying to slow Cal down and started to try to be faster. Prop Matt Thibodaux changed his depth on his runs and the result was he started to bull through the gainline. Russell was everywhere on defense, in the rucks, and making key steals. Gray was insoirational, and Krieger magical.

This report doesn't do it justice. Watch the game here and you'll see. It was imperfect, but still a brilliantly-played game and tactically fascinating. 

Navy 28
Tries: Webb, MacLaney, Bullock, Opp
Convs: Krieger 4

Cal 22
Tries: O'Connell, Shea, Kirsten
Convs: Schumacher 2
Pens: Schumacher