Photo by Alex Ho

Bear Ruggers Beat St. Mary's on Final Play, Reach Title Game

April 27, 2019

Cal will be advancing to the national championship rugby game May 4, but the Bears had to survive a determined St. Mary’s side to do it

The Gaels (18-2), whose only two losses were to the Bears (18-1), scored a go-ahead try with less than three minutes left in Saturday’s national semifinal.

That was enough time for the Bears, barely. Junior wing Sam Cusano rolled into St. Mary’s try zone on the game’s final play (above) to give Cal a 28-24 victory before a packed house at St. Mary’s Stadium.

“After they scored, I think all the boys knew it was going to take a great effort to pull it out and we just kept our heads straight and pulled it out,” Cusano said afterward, his speech somewhat affected by the bruise on his lip where one of his teeth went through. Such is the life of a rugger.

The Bears now face defending champion Life University in Santa Clara for the national championship. This is a rematch of last year’s title game, won by Life, 60-5.

Although St. Mary’s controlled the ball much of the first half and had it on the Bears’ side of the field quite a bit, the Bears were able to keep them out of the try zone until late in the period.

 Cal head coach Jack Clark felt his defense was playing well, although it was giving up yardage in big chunks,

“We kept them in front of us,” he said. “They were moving the ball but never got behind us.”

St. Mary’s twice got within a few meters of the try line, only to be turned away. The Bears, meanwhile, had trouble getting the ball away from their end of the field. The Gaels were the first to get on the board when Sean Yacoubian converted a long-range penalty kick for 3-0.

The Bears then got their offense in gear and dominated the next 15 minutes, getting tries from hooker Jack Manzo, and then Sam Golla.

After numerous threats, St. Mary’s finally got a try of its own. A scrum deep in Cal territory resulted in No. 8 Vili Helu getting the ball clear and tossing it to center Tavite Lopeti, who had a clear path to the try zone.

Cal freshman flyhalf Sam Walsh, who also finished the day with four conversions,  fooled the Gaels and broke through for a try just before the half and Cal led 21-10 at the break.

The second half featured more of the same for St. Mary’s as the Gaels kept the pressure on, only to be denied one way or the other. Cal also had its chances but couldn’t convert.

“We had four chances in the second half that really would have changed the game and we didn’t ring the bell on those,” Clark said. “It was our errors. We got in behind them and threw an intercept pass, and we could have walked in. Then we had a couple of knock-ons It was just crazy stuff.”

There were some wild plays, including interceptions by each team just seconds apart. Each team looked like it was about to break away only to toss the ball to an opposing player.

St. Mary’s scored the first try of the second half midway through the period. Helu hooked up with  Sean Yacoubian, who then got the ball to a free flanker Ronan Murphy, who was in for a try that would make the score 21-17.

St. Mary’s kept the pressure on and missed a couple more scoring chances, including when Tavite Lopeti was hit hard just as he was crossing the try line and fumbled the ball forward.

A Cal forward pass gave the Gaels one last chance, and Yacoubian took a pass from Helu and scored from the corner. He actually missed his conversion kick but Cal was offside and given the second chance he nailed it for 24-21, Gaels.

With time dwindling Cal’s response was anything but smooth. The kickoff was a must win for the Bears, and Cusano was able to do that. Then they quickly moved the ball into Gaels territory but lost it a couple of times. Finally, they won the last scrum and Christian Dyer’s move fooled his defender, then he sent a nifty pass to Cusano who sidestepped one defender and shed a tackle by Johnathan Hackett.

“It was kind of a blur, I don’t remember much,” Cusano said. “I got the ball just took it on the outside and with my speed, I scored.”

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Bear Ruggers Beat St. Mary's on Final Play, Reach Title Game

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