(Paul Meyers Photos)
The dust has quickly settled on yet another College Rugby National Tournament ... but why? Our defending 2009 National Champs BYU Cougars lost in a hard-fought match to the Cal Berkeley Machine, en route to a 25th National Title for the latter in only 31 years of tournament play.
You would think, my friends, that there would be another deluge of screaming, crying, and frustration from BYU fans (or at least from me!) over another tough loss to Cal in the final (our fourth in the last five years) ... And you would think that there would be an overabundance of cheering, lauding, and general embellishment coming from the Cal side in praise of their marvelous, undefeated season topped by an unheard of, 25th title ...
So you would think, folks ... but the reality is that no such response has emerged. Why?? Because, relatively speaking, nobody cares when Cal wins!!!
Of course, Cal fans and players were pleased with their win. But after a spot of post-game revelry, they rather quickly disappeared. After all, they had won again and so had little to talk about.
Ironically, BYU fans were extremely happy and proud of the BYU Rugby team's final performance in the face of defeat. BYU had fought hard and even performed above and beyond the mark of their entire season, so the loss didn't really feel that bad.
It seemed a matter of fears gone unrealized. After a season of unprecedented dominance, Cal was afraid to lose again in the final. And BYU, after a season of rebuilding and struggle, was afraid to win ... yes, you heard right: "win".
Only 24 hours earlier, Cal had carved up a physical opponent in Arkansas State, 83-37. Yet BYU, in similar fashion, discarded their Big Four opponent in Army by the score of 63-28. That's a nearly-identical points ratio of about 2.25:1 for both teams ... and while that might not sound like a big deal, perhaps some other numbers will better illustrate the point in question ...
In 2010 regular season play, the mighty Cal Bears outscored their opponents by an average of 15.34 points to 1 over the course of 22 games (1396-91 total points). The BYU Cougars' regular season consisted of 13 matches resulting in a ratio of only 3.58 points for every 1 point for their opponents (490-137 total points) ... not exactly the typical picture of BYU domination! (compare to last year's points ratio of 7.13:1, twice that of this year's team) But not exactly the usual level of Cal domination either ...
The annual "World Cup" of college rugby, a two-match tournament between Cal Berkeley and British Columbia, often presents Cal with its only real competition during the season. Historically, the tournament has often ended with both teams garnering a home win, with Cal taking the trophy on the cumulative points differential. The 2010 match-up, however, resulted in uncharacteristically comfortable wins for Cal at home (39-7) and away (41-10).
Additionally, Cal hadn't been held to less than 25 points in their entire season or even in the trip to the final against BYU. Moreover, Cal's dominance had seen 10 regular season shutouts and no opposing teams escaping the teens in all their scoring efforts. Cal hadn't lost many players from their 2009 lineup ... and the overwhelming W's showed the difference.
Either way the story is told, it's a given that Cal and rugby are a recipe for dominance ... but the 2010 season was that and more.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the mountains and desert, Our BYU Cougars faced the difficult task of rebuilding while defending their first National Title. The loss of seniors to graduation and freshmen to LDS missions left the team with some untested depth, now in line to start. And though such change in collegiate sport is typical, nevertheless the effects thereof were magnified by injuries to key starters before, during, and late in the season. The starting lineup never quite got set.
BYU was a different team than that of their undefeated 2009 squad, still struggling to find its identity ... and the results reflected the fact. After a controversial and extremely close loss to the Denver Barbarians, BYU squeaked by Utah for a lucky, 15-10 Wasatch Cup win and immediate #1 seed in the Round of 16. But only a few weeks later, BYU fell to Utah by two points in their first-ever Rio Tinto exhibition match. The score shouldn't have even been close ...
Nerves and tempers tested, BYU Rugby fans cringed at the prospect of not even returning to the national title game ... After all, Utah would most likely end up facing the Cougars in the Big Four. Only the last season game, a bout against then #3-ranked (on ARN) San Diego State, would provide any indication of BYU's playoff potential ...
Though the match proved to be no cakewalk, BYU walked away with a convincing 36-22 win. (Insert major sigh of relief here) Despicable line-outs and lackluster support play seemingly now in the past, Our Boys looked more primed for the national tournament than anyone had expected. Our Cougars then waltzed through the first two rounds of sixteen and eight with minimal resistance, beating Delaware (whom they had defeated early in the season) 33-13 and Arizona (who, honestly, worried BYU even less) 46-10. The real challenge facing Our Boys, upon reaching the Big Four, turned mysterious as Army, not Utah, stepped into the ring.
Coming off a double-overtime win over the Utes, the Black Knights of Army looked to be BYU's match ... for, if they were able to beat Utah, then it would surely follow that they could stand 'toe to toe' with the Cougars ... correct? Uhhh ... wrong!!! Critics' and observers' predictions on both ends fell completely short of foreseeing the degree of dominance with which BYU would eventually crush the cadets of West Point by 35 points. The difference then???
First of all, Army was not Utah. BYU's last meeting with Army happened five years previous in a quarterfinal match-up wherein the Cougars won a gritty struggle, 36-13 ... But that was five years ago. Translation: As far as the BYU Rugby team was concerned, Army was just another good team on the way to the title, just like Arkansas State or San Diego State last year ... no psychological baggage or strings attached, no rivalry, no extensive history to throw in BYU's face. Apologies to Army, but with all due respect, Utah is a whole different animal in BYU's eyes ... (how else would they ever beat us in anything! :D)
Last of all, Our Boys were just hitting their stride. With a solid lineup finally established, BYU still had room to grow as a team. Though they had passed through the semis relatively untested, they were then ready to come out 'guns blazing' ... and how much so, we BYU fans couldn't even imagine! When Our Cougars attacked through several phases to set up a center-Tupu-Folau try in the very first minute and a scrumhalf-Shaun-Davies try in the fifth minute, we knew we were in for a special treat!!
To Army's credit, they had a good ten- to fifteen-minute spurt in the first half where they pretty well controlled things and scored two tries. And in the second half, they did the same for a solid twenty minutes or so, putting up another two tries. And though they converted all four, yet their efforts still paled in comparison to the Cougars' nine converted tries (Thank you, Shaun Davies!).
And so the stage was set for another great final test between Cal and BYU: the former coming off a stellar season; the latter climaxing at just the right time! And while BYU was on the upswing, Cal had just experienced one of its tougher matches of the year in Arkansas State. Granted, Cal started a number of secondary players and still won by 46 points, but ASU put up a solid 37 points while star-kicker Keegan Engelbrecht wasn't perfect on the day, going 8 for 12 on conversions. For the first time all season long, BYU looked threatening and Cal looked relatively vulnerable ...
In not so many words, the final page turned in Cal's favor. Inadequate refereeing blurred the score into the realms of deception (there's a vast difference between making a decision and not even being there in time to see what happened). Honestly, the score could have been 19-12, 20-19, or even 25-22 in favor of either team, but the referee's score didn't accurately reflect the closeness of the match. Instead, both teams received the consequences of a guessing game, for better or for worse.
News outlets would give an impression of Cal dominating the entirety of the game in every facet, a typical display of Cal Rugby ... and such was simply not the case (for the disbeliever, hear it from Cal's head coach and players themselves). BYU never gave up; Cal never let up. BYU made mistakes; Cal made mistakes. Cal's first try of the night came off what looked to be a very forward pass; BYU's first try was discounted as "held up". Keegan Engelbrecht went 0/2 on conversions; Shaun Davies went 1/1. Engelbrecht went 2/2 on penalty kicks; Davies went 0/1. Cal scored a try at the beginning and at the end of the first half; BYU scored none. BYU scored a finally-allowed try toward the end of the second half; Cal scored none. The game wasn't exactly a tale of one team.
As BYU threatened to score again in the closing minutes, Engelbrecht attempted a drop-goal in the 77th minute. The ball just snuck over the cross bar, sealing the deal at 19-7 in favor of Cal. Even then BYU fought for a score in the remaining minutes, but a pair of BYU penalties and secure recycling by the Cal forwards ensured Cal possession until the clock ran out.
In some respects, it seemed a mirror opposite of the Cal-BYU final of last year. After the final whistle, Cal players stormed together in a flurry of emotion, some even collapsing to the ground in a mix of relief and disbelief. For several minutes afterward, Cal Head Coach Jack Clark seemed to be stuck in a stupor of shock at the realization that they had actually won the National Title back from BYU, going undefeated in the process.
For BYU fans, it was a bittersweet spectacle ... but only for a moment. BYU had lost again to Cal, true. But that was only on the surface, only on paper, only on the scoreboard. The reality of the game's intensity and the players' resolve on both sides said so much more ...
A BYU team that faced great adversity throughout the season ended on a very high note, and no BYU fan or player anywhere could deny the fact. For when was the last time Cal had been held to scoring less than twenty points in a game? When was the last time they had been kept try-less in the second half of any game? Had they ever experienced either of these deficiencies?? Ever at all??? Not even BYU's National Championship team of 2009 could lay claim to such achievements ...
And so Our Boys, Our 2010 BYU Men's Rugby team can stand erect, proud of their performance. We true BYU Rugby fans were there ... we saw and we know ... without shame, animosity, or regret. Instead, excitement, energy, and respect for both teams reigned in what proved an eventful test. We can all walk tall, all of us in the BYU Rugby community, with heads held high for this year, for the realization of expectations exceeded ... and especially for the prospects of tomorrow.
Congratulations to Our BYU Rugby Boys and the entire BYU Rugby Staff on another great and exciting season! (as long as #2 in the nation is it bad as it gets, we can all survive until next season, right?)
Keep on rolling, Cougars!! Next year, it's our turn!!!
(Paul Meyers Photos)