Brigham Young University overtook California in the USA Rugby National Guard College Championship match Saturday night at Steuber Rugby Stadium, walking away with its first National title and ending the Bear’s five year winning streak with a 25-22 victory.
Five penalty kicks by flyhalf Keegan Engelbrecht and an Eric Fry try were unable to put enough space between the Golden Bears and Cougars, with Championship MVP Shaun Davies kicking the winning penalty goal for BYU with two minutes remaining.
“We’ve worked so hard for this,” said BYU senior captain, Steve St. Pierre. “To win the national championship is the greatest feeling, ever.”
In the ninth minute Cal (30-2) got the first of several penalty opportunities when BYU (18-0) was whistled for offsides at the Cougar 10-meter line. Engelbrecht booted it through to stake the Golden Bears to a 3-0 lead.
A similar infraction at the same spot led to the senior flyhalf’s second three pointer four minutes later. A 17th minute whistle for hands in the ruck afforded Engelbrecht his third attempt from inside the 22, and he connected to make it a 9-0 Cal lead.
BYU was awarded a penalty just a minute later outside the Cal 22, but Davies’ attempt hit the left crossbar. A 21st minute drop kick by Dylan Lubbe was also wide, but the Cougars stayed after it and lock Kyle Sumison muscled his way into the try zone at the 24th minute, with Davies’ conversion cutting Cal’s lead to two.
Another whistle against the Cougars left Cal with another penalty attempt from inside the 22, which Engelbrecht slotted in front of the boisterous BYU bleachers for a 12-7 Bears lead at halftime.
BYU had the intensity to match Cal’s, but their infractions were often costly and almost were their undoing, as when Cougars lock Isikeli Volavola was yellow-carded for leaving his feet at a ruck in the 36th minute, giving the Bears a man advantage for the next 10 minutes.
Cal used the advantage to march a driving maul just shy of the BYU goal line and Eric Fry finished the work with a try to increase the lead to 19-7 in favor of Cal following Engelbrecht’s conversion.
The Cougars returned to full strength and quickly mounted another charge, hammering away inside the Bears’ 10-meter line until Viliami Vimahi was awarded a try in a pile of bodies. Davies’ missed conversion kept it a seven-point Cal advantage.
The Cougars’ once again would fall afoul of the referee and were given a second yellow card as fullback Sam Thorley was sent to the bin for tackling Colin Hawley while the Bears’ outside center was in the air. A dangerous-play tackle by Vimahi at minute 57 resulted in another yellow to put BYU two men down, with Engelbrecht nailing his fifth penalty kick to extend Cal’s lead to 22-12.
But Cal just couldn’t put BYU away and a Vito QaQa try with Shaun Davies’ conversion cut Cal’s lead to 22-19. The Cougars got their chance to tie the match with a 38 meter penalty attempt at the 69th minute, and outside center Paul Lasike connected for BYU, making it 22-22. Three minutes later, the Cougars were whistled again just inside their territory, leaving a lead-grabbing 45 meter attempt for Engelbrecht that went wide right.
A fourth yellow card could have finished BYU’s hopes of winning as Cougar prop Mike Su’a was carded for another dangerous tackle, and Engelbrecht got another chance to snatch back the lead at minute 75 with a kick from almost midfield, but it was wide left.
Engelbrecht then chased a wobbly kick from BYU to outside his 22 and knocked the ball on trying to secure it, giving BYU a scrum put-in with time winding down. The ensuing scrum resulted in another infraction against Cal, and Shaun Davies lined up and made the winning kick from 25 meters, as Cal could not mount a final charge.
“It was a hard game,” said Engelbrecht, “very physical with a lot of heart from both teams.”
“It’s just incredible; I thought we’d blown our chance with some of those yellow cards,” said Cougars head coach David Smyth. “It’s a massive victory for us, but we’re not under any false illusions, either. This is this year, but we know that Cal will be back.”
“As coaches we’re proud of our guys, they worked awfully hard for this opportunity and we couldn’t have asked more of them,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “In the end we were beaten by a better team on the day, so we’ll tip our hat to the Cougars and congratulate them on their national championship.”
“It’s just an amazing feeling. I’m just so happy,” Shaun Davies said. “I’ve had a lot of rugby moments but this is the best moment of my life.”
“When the final whistle blew, it was an unbelievable feeling,” said senior wing, Vito Qaqa. “I was asking people, ‘Am I dreaming?’ I have a bag of silver at home but to graduate and have a gold medal is awesome.”
The weekend’s action has been taped for broadcast on ESPNU, with a highlights show first airing on May 12 at 9 p.m. (EST), followed by the Women’s DI National Championships on May 20 at 7 p.m. (EST) and Men’s DI Championships at 9 p.m. (EST).