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What Made Saint Mary's v Cal a Special Moment

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What Made Saint Mary's v Cal a Special Moment

There was something historic about the Saint Mary’s victory over Cal this past weekend.

Part of it might have been television - the game was shown live on Pac-12 Networks Bay Area, and on delay elsewhere. It was exciting. It was sometimes well played, and sometimes featured mistakes. And it had atmosphere - palpable atmosphere you could see on the screen.

And while it wasn’t a conference game, it mattered. It mattered as a longstanding rivalry match, a measuring stick of various conferences, and as a piece of history. Cal hasn’t lost to a US college team at home since 2004 well it’s been a long time.

And of course it almost was a Cal victory. 

"We all know Saint Mary's is a good rugby team and they didn't need any help from us, but unfortunately we mostly handed them the match at the end," said head coach Jack Clark. "We were too speculative with offloads and kicked them some balls we want back. We took an 11-point lead into the last 10 minutes and gave the match away from there. Now, credit Saint Mary's, they were good. They have some excellent players that have some good experience under their belts."

"It was a good game and then we just let ourselves down at the end," concurred prop Kevin Sullivan, whose performance included several impressive runs but one errant offload as Cal struggled in the match's closing minutes. The Bears elected to attack from their own try zone in another sequence that led to Matthews' first try when Webb's pass down the line went awry and the Gaels capitalized. "There were too many 50-50 balls in the air," said Sullivan.

Both Clark and Sullivan are right. Cal made errors - passes that hit the deck or were forward or into touch. But Saint Mary’s made some errors, too. They were surging on with a 3-on-1 and took too long to pass, and got tackled. Anthony Salaber’s interception for a try for Cal was a brilliant play by an excellent player, and a Saint Mary’s error. Mike McCarthy waits a beat, maybe it’s a Gaels break the other way.

Both teams, then, made key errors. 

So what about the non-errors? Perhaps that was what stuck with Saint Mary’s Head Coach Tim O’Brien. 

“I think the big thing was, on defense, we didn’t panic,” O’Brien said. “How many teams go to Witter field in a situation like that and panic? And what’s panic? Penalties. You’re freaking out that they’re going to score and you commit a penalty. But [the Saint Mary’s players] kept their shape. It’s a real credit to the leadership.”

Alec Barton and Kevin O’Connor were immense during that final few minutes, when Cal was pushing to put the game away, they were at the middle of the defensive effort. And once Saint Mary’s scored that crucial try and led 27-24, they were once again in the middle, and O’Connor made the final poach to seal the deal.

Meanwhile, scrumhalf Holden Yungert was constantly harassed, but never stopped working. 

O’Brien pointed to a moment with about 12 minutes to go, after Cal mauled over the try to make it 24-13, was that the Bears were quickly in the same position, and Saint Mary’s stopped them.

“We maintained composure and got out of it, and that was a defining moment,” said O’Brien.

And of course there was that final try, when Jack Carso smartly took the mark, tapped quickly, and with the aid of Mike McCarthy, turned the play around. And Aaron Matthews scored th try and Dylan Audsley got the conversion that ensured a penalty goal or drop goal would only tie it.

In the end, it was a historic game. The last time a US college team beat Cal in Berkeley was Cal Poly in 2004, a game where the Bears kept several of their regular starters off the field in order to scout the Cal Poly team they would meat again (and beat) in the national final. Before then, you have to go back to 1996 and Stanford for a Cal home loss to a US college team. Saint Mary’s also pulled off that feat before … in 1971.

Will it be 46 years until the next one? You wonder. The college landscape has changed of late, and it’s worth noting that while Cal won the B-side game, the scored was 32-32 before Cal scored late to win 45-32. In previous years, those B-side games have always been Cal blowouts.

So remember this weekend, that moment, it might mean something more, and while neither team was perfect, the ended had some perfect drama to it.