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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cal Beats St. Mary's In Crucial Encounter

By Derek Sagehorn

The California Golden Bears defeated the St. Mary’s Gaels Saturday afternoon 27-14 in Moraga, California. Although a nonleague match, the derby between clubs on either side of the Caldecott Tunnel features two of the top American university rugby sides. In addition to being a good barometer for the state each program’s form midseason, the proximity and familiarity make for a cracker of a match.

A heavy rainstorm was predicted for Saturday early in the week. California farmers’ prayers may have been answered, but Golden Bears and Gaels players were subject to awful conditions. In the opening minutes, both teams seem well-prepared for a greasy ball and did well to keep a tight pattern. Although the opening quarter saw more conservative play, there was no love lost in the contact area. Both teams contested the ball at the breakdown and slowed even slower ball. The water-logged field at St. Mary’s Stadium did its part too—causing players to lose their footing at a few promising passages of play.

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Cal used the conditions to their advantage in the first half by pinning St. Mary’s in their own half with well-intentioned and well-executed kicking but scoring opportunities eluded them due to mishandling and frenzied play. Around the 15 minute mark, Cal halfback Nic Boyer placed a box kick into St. Mary’s right hand corner that was mishandled. The ensuing scrum saw St. Mary’s pinged for illegal scrummaging. Perhaps inspired by the opportunistic spirit of the Gaels, Boyer tapped quickly and shipped a ball to the centers that was lost in the tackle. What possession St. Mary’s did find was kicked away to clear the lines. When given a chance to play with ball in hand outside of their own 22, St. Mary’s made limited incursions over the gainline. The Gaels looked uncomfortable playing narrow football, like they were wearing a small and itchy sweater.

As Cal settled in they continued to make clinical kicks into the corners. The St. Mary’s throw and catch at the lineout was well-disrupted by the rain and Cal forwards. Given the lion’s share of possession and territory, Cal fullback Harry Adolphus received quick ball on the right side and scored. He missed the difficult conversion, but Cal wing Evan Coleman scored before half to bring the score to 10-0.

In a game with nasty conditions and the odd handling error, the scrum loomed large for both sides. Cal pushed back against St. Mary’s All-American front row and both sides produced penalties. The contest between Cal loosehead Scott Walsh and St. Mary’s tighthead Dino Waldren was particularly fierce. At the 50th minute, St. Mary’s captain Dylan Audsley slipped and stepped through Cal’s fractured defensive line for a try, which he converted. Several minutes later, St. Mary’s pushed a kick ahead behind the Cal back three. In the contest for the ball, the referee spotted an interference by a Cal player that merited a penalty try. Audsley converted but Cal quickly answered with another Coleman try. Then George Vrame and Nic Boyer crossed the white paint to build as comfortable a lead as one can have playing against the Gaels. Cal, however, held on and shut out St. Mary’s in the final ten minutes to win 27-14.

After the game, coach Clark praised his flyhalf’s performance. "Because of the conditions we needed to mix having a go with ball in hand with playing a field position game. I thought we mostly found the right balance and executed several really productive kicks in behind the Gaels. I thought Russ Webb in particular found some space several times and raked the ball behind them towards the touchline."

Asked about his team's response to the conditions coach Tim O'Brien confessed that they did not adapt "as well as Cal adapted. Cal has 3 quality tactical kickers, on a good day we have 1. They employed their kick-chase strategy well. We had none. We got caught once again in playing a narrow channel game."

Up next Cal faces Santa Clara, and then Oregon State before heading north for the second leg of the World Cup in Vancouver. Tim O’Brien and the Gaels will head to Utah for more tough matches against the University of Utah and Brigham Young University.

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