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Saint Mary's Downs Cal at Cal on Late Try

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Saint Mary's Downs Cal at Cal on Late Try

Aaron Matthews scored two late tries to help Saint Mary's win. Michael Geib photo.

Saint Mary’s College defeated Cal 27-24 Saturday evening at Witter Field in a stirring comeback.

This game is an enormous rivalry between the two stories rugby universities, but Cal has won easily the lion’s share of the games. But this year the Gaels came in confident, and were looking for an upset.

The teams were, as expected, pumped for the game and both sides hit extremely hard. The first few minutes both teams were clearly trying to find some opening, and eventually a miscue by Cal opened things up for the Gaels. Chasing a high ball, Cal fullback Jake Goena hit a Saint Mary’s player who was in the air. Penalty to Saint Mary’s and Goena was off with a yellow card. Cal did well to kill that penalty for a while, but a Saint Mary’s clearance kick was fumbled a little by the Bears at the back. The Gaels pressed their advantage, and when Russell Webb let a pass slip through his fingers near his tryline, the ensuing scrum was a perfect attacking opportunity for Saint Mary’s.

The Gaels tried to drive over with the pack, were stopped, but in the backs flyhalf Mike McCarthy popped a kick wide for Chris McDonnell to put it down. Dylan Audsley kicked the conversion and Saint Mary’s led 7-0.

But Cal came right back. Clearly thy were trying to go wide all day and wanted to expose what they felt was iffy Gaels defense on the perimeter. They came close to breaking it open early in the game, and then executed an odd-man rush for freshman Sam Cusano. The former Granite Bay HS start brushed away some defensive attention was raced in for an excellent try to make it 7-5.

Back came the Gaels, and they had a three-on-one in the midfield but took too long to decide what to do. Moments later, Cal’s excellent center, Anthony Salaber, anticipated a McCarthy pass and was in under the posts. Webb hit the conversion and Cal led 12-7.

Audsley answered with a long-range penalty, but then missed a longer one. Cal held on 12-10.

At this point, though, Cal seemed to be exerting control over the game. Saint Mary’s players were getting a bit emotional, and Cal started to make the gain line on a regular basis. Meanwhile, the Bears defense was coming up quickly and forcing Saint Mary’s mistakes. A kick ahead for Cusano was fumbled inside the Saint Mary’s 22. Cal got the scrum, and from there No. 8 Drew Gaffney fed another freshman, scrumhalf Keanu Andrade. The former Danville HS start sold a dummy and cut right into the gap he created for the try. Webb’s kick was good and Cal led 19-10.

Much of the rest of the first half was played with a sort of wild randomness. Players made some decisions (stopping, waiting for a defender to commit, and then running away) like it was 7s. Both teams were trying to make sense of a pretty unstructured ruck situation, and both teams dropped the ball at important moments.

The second half started with Saint Mary’s working harder to poach the ball in the ruck. Doing that every time requires a lot of energy, and plenty of patience with the ref, and sometimes they didn’t have the latter. Still, Audsley was able to cut the deficit with a penalty, although he also missed from long range a little later.

The game didn’t settle down as far as intensity or aggression went, but the scoring cut back as both teams tried desperately to jar the ball loose. Cal started sending more players over the ball to reduce the Gaels’ poaching efforts, and that worked fairly well.

Then a crucial moment. An off the ball incident led to a small melee. Referee Phil Ackroyd, who has dealt with these sorts of high-pressure games before, did what most refs do, and said he hadn’t seen what started it, but did see the extra man come in. That retaliation from Saint Mary’s No. 8 Vili Helu earned a penalty for Cal, and perhaps because something else started it all, no yellow card.

Cal took the lineout, and mauled it over, simple as that. Flanker Nick Mirhashem touched it down. Cal now led 24-13.

But it wasn’t over, not by a long shot. Back came the Gaels, using prop Payton Talea power ahead, and getting a surging run from Alec Barton at flanker. Once again knock-ons hurt them, but all that ended up doing was giving Cal a scrum against a superior scrumming team deep in their own 22. Cal won the ball, decided to run the ball out of their own end, and the Gaels knocked the ball loose. It bounced kindly off the artificial turf to center Aaron Matthews, and the former Back Bay standout was in at the corner. Audsley, calm as you please, put the conversion over, and it was 24-20.

So to the final minutes. Cal was on the attack and could put the game away with a try. Webb lofted a kick for his backs to chase, but the ball was caught by the Gaels' Jack Carso, who alertly called for the mark, tapped quickly, and started running out of his 22. Carso was caught by a surprised Cal team, but not before he had made significant yardage. A quick offload to McCarthy saw the flyhalf gallop 50 meters more, pushing some tacklers away as he went. McCarthy was dragged down about ten meters form the tryline, but the Gaels were there in numbers to win the ruck, and quick hands put Matthews over for the try. Audsley converted, and with three minutes left, Saint Mary’s had the lead 27-24.

Cal had one more sequence to go, but also knew that a penalty or drop goal would only tie it. They went hard through the phases, as Saint Mary’s tried to poach every time. They failed every time … until they didn’t. Captain and flanker Kevin O’Connor stole the ball right under his team’s goalposts. He paid for it, needing some medical attention on his shoulder, but stayed on as Saint Mary’s got the scrum. The referee said it was the last play, the Gaels won the ball (barely), reset the ruck twice, and kicked the ball dead to win the game.

It was a thriller, to be sure, sometimes sloppy, sometimes brilliant, and always compelling. Both teams lobbied hard for calls they didn’t get, and both teams left chances on the table. But in the end, Saint Mary’s did something that very few teams ever do, and won on Cal’s home field.


Saint Mary’s 27

Tries: McDonnell, Matthews 2

Convs: Audsley 3

Pens: Audsley 2


Cal 24

Tries: Cusano, Salaber, Andrade, Mirhashem

Convs: Webb 2