PROVO, Utah – The California Golden Bears defeated the previously unbeaten Brigham Young Cougars, 40-29, to win the 2016 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup national championship final Saturday on South Field.
Cal (20-2) scored six tries to four for BYU (22-1), dotting down the last three tries of the match in an epic contest that saw the Bears take a brief lead early, trail at the halftime break, claw their way back into the lead with 11 minutes to play and score two more tries to pull away and seize their first national 15s championship since 2011.
“It’s a legendary win, a win for the ages” said head coach Jack Clark, whose Cal teams have now won 23 national titles in 15s in addition to their three championships in Olympic 7s. “We played with a lot of heart. It wasn’t easy to be in the game in the last 20 minutes. But when we were, we gave ourselves a chance to win. We had a good plan, but executing a plan against such a good team as BYU is very difficult. The guys did really well.”
Flyhalf Russell Webb, who kept the Cougars on their heels with expert territorial kicking and booted three straight conversions (3-for-3) to help seal to historic win, was named Man of the Match for the victors.
“We wanted to attack the corner if it was open, and if not, we wanted to keep the ball in hand,” said Webb of the Bears’ kicking strategy. “That was a big difference maker and a credit to the coaches. We also knew we had to match their physicality and we did. I was pretty proud of the boys.”
The 15th all-time meeting between the Bears and Cougars and 10th clash between the two programs for the national title began with a BYU attack that had the partisan home crowd sensing a hometown victory party was in the cards. The Cougars kicked off and spent the first two minutes of the match on the attack before a BYU lineout was stolen by Thomas Robles in an example of Cal’s lineout prowess, which would become a key element to its success.
The Bears staked their field position successfully inside BYU territory during those early stages, with Webb giving a chip kick to the right touchline that sophomore winger Zachary Tavenner was just short of running down. Two minutes later, Webb moved the ball the other way, where the Bears found a numbers advantage that was capitalized upon by winger Lucas Dunne, who scored in the corner for a 5-0 lead.
BYU went to work against the Bears defense, resulting in a Zach Weber try for the Cougars, converted by Calvin Whiting. Five minutes later, Arawa Elkington dotted down and the Whiting conversion put the Bears into a 14-5 hole.
Cal wasted no time climbing back into the match as Tavenner took an inside offload from Boyer at the 10-meter line and scored, with Boyer slotting the conversion (2-of-3) to trim the BYU lead to 14-12, and the teams went into the locker rooms after 40 minute with only two points separating them.
The Cougars’ Whiting found space early in the second half and had the BYU partisan crowd on its feet as he sprinted 50 meters before Tavenner tracked him down from behind. Brigham Young was awarded a penalty but Whiting missed from 40 meters.
At minute 46, replacement back Ryan Blaser ended a frantic sequence with a BYU try in the left corner that Whiting was able to convert, and Cal trailed 21-12. Three minutes later, Whiting added three points on another 40-meter penalty attempt that this time went between the posts and increased Cal’s deficit to 12 points at 24-12.
The Bears managed to mount another offensive sequence within three more minutes, and hooker Michael Bush rumbled in for a try that was converted by Boyer to make it a 24-19 match at minute 53. That was answered quickly by the Cougars, with Tua Laei streaking into the right corner for a try that Whiting could not convert, leaving the match at 29-19 in the 59th minute.
At minute 63, Russell Webb was tackled without the ball as he chased a dribbler that was heading inside the BYU 22, setting up a penalty kick by Boyer that he shanked to the right (0-for-1), leaving a 10-point advantage for the home team.
But the Bears would not quit. Anthony Salaber scored a try at minute 69 in the phase that followed a penetrating run by sophomore fullback Jake Goena. Webb connected on the conversion to make it 29-26, BYU, with 10 minutes to play.
Three minutes later, Boyer gave the Bears their first lead since the seven-minute mark at 33-29 when his try was converted by Webb, stunning the crowd. Bush then scored his second try near the left corner and Webb lasered his third conversion of the half between the posts for a 40-29 lead to the Blue and Gold that became the final score of a match for the ages.
“I thought Cal were better all around, more physical and dialed in to what they were trying to do,” said BYU head coach David Smyth.
“We underestimated them,” added Cougars captain Arawa Elkington.
“It’s just freaking beautiful,” said Boyer. “That’s all I can say. The boys came through big today.”
The 2016 championship marked the fourth consecutive year the Varsity Cup final was played in Utah, and the second time in that span that it took place on the Cougars’ home pitch. It was a welcome challenge for a Cal team determined to make its mark in the 15-a-side history of the oldest intercollegiate sport at the University of California. With its 15s season complete, Cal returns to campus for final exams while transitioning back to the Olympic style of the game at the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship June 4-5, when the Bears will play for their fourth straight national title in 7s ahead of the return of rugby to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
The Scoring Timeline vs. BYU:
07:00 Lucas Dunne 5
20:00 BYU (Zach Weber) 5, (Calvin Whiting) 2
25:00 BYU (Arawa Elkington) 5, (Calvin Whiting) 2
29:00 Zachary Tavenner 5, Nicklas Boyer
Halftime Score: BYU 14, California 12
45:00 BYU (Ryan Blaser) 5, (Calvin Whiting) 2
49:00 BYU (Calvin Whiting) 3
52:00 Michael Bush 5, Nicklas Boyer 2
54:00 BYU (Tua Laei) 5
70:00 Anthony Salaber 5, Russell Webb 2
72:00 Nicklas Boyer 5, Russell Webb 2
77:00 Michael Bush 5, Russell Webb 2
Final Score: California 40, BYU 29
The Team vs. BYU
15. Goena, 14. Tavenner, 13. Barrientes (Okusi @ 60:00), 12. A. Salaber, 11. Dunne (Honens @ 60:00), 10. R. Webb, 9. Boyer, 1. Walsh, 2. Bush, 3. Vrame (Sullivan @ 60:00, 4. Kondrat, 5. Sweet, 6. N. Salaber, 7. Mirhashem (Gaffney @ 47:00, Mirhashem @ 56:00), 8. Robles