LAFAYETTE, Colo. – It appeared California was going to win its third consecutive match over Saint Mary’s College when the Golden Bears held an 11-point lead into the backend of the second half. However, two late tries scored by center Aaron Matthews, both converted successfully by Dylan Audsley, made for a dramatic finish to the Gaels’ 27-24 win against Cal.
A raucous and packed environment at Cal’s Witter Rugby Field didn’t create any jitters for Saint Mary’s in the opening exchanges. In fact, the Gaels owned the better part of the possession and territory during the game’s opening minutes.
“It was definitely different from any game I played in this year, and even unmatched compared to the National Championship game last year,” Matthews said of the environment in Berkeley.
“Our fans were incredible,” added captain Kevin O’Connor. “Some of the chants and cheering were awesome at key parts of the game and those moments we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
The scoring initiated on a highlight-worthy play that saw fly half Michael McCarthy send a cross-field kick into the arms of wing Chris McDonell, who carried the pill over the line for the match’s first try.
Cal came close to leveling the score soon after when prized freshman winger Sam Cusano had plenty of work to do before streaking across the try line. Unfortunately for the Bears, Russell Webb’s conversion attempt went wide and Saint Mary’s clung to a 7-5 advantage.
The Gaels got back on the front foot, but their momentum was halted when senior Anthony Salaber intercepted a McCarthy pass and used his long, 6-foot-5 frame to gallop under the posts to put Cal ahead, 12-7, after Webb slotted the conversion.
Saint Mary’s closed the gap to just three points thanks to an Audsley penalty goal, but the team’s kicking from hand didn’t help to further inch closer to the Bears before halftime. A number of attempts by the Gaels to relieve pressure deep in their own half weren’t able to find space, and made it easy for Cal’s back three to return kicks and keep the visitors on the back foot. Eventually, a pick at the back of the scrum by No. 8 Drew Gaffney wound up in scrum half Keanu Andrade’s powerful arms, who refused to be stopped before collecting a five-pointer. Another Webb conversion propelled the Bears to a 19-10 lead at halftime.
Audsley opened the second half with his second penalty goal, but uncharacteristic handling errors by the Gaels stalled legitimate scoring opportunities.
“There’s a lot of pressure in those games…we didn’t play to the best of our ability and there’s a lot we need to work on going into playoffs, but I think a lot of those errors were self-inflicted,” attested Matthews.
An after-the-whistle dustup proved to be a pivotal point in the rivalry match. Given the minor melee, a penalty needed to be given and referee Phil Akroyd did just that to Saint Mary’s eight man Vili Helu. With the Cal faithful behind them, the Bears snatched the ensuing lineout and easily mauled it over the line for a try that brought the majority of fans at Witter Rugby Field to their feet and boosted the team’s lead to 24-13.
“After their score off the drive – it was a considerable turning point in the game. Any team against Cal would’ve turned it in and let those last 10 minutes run out,” said O’Connor of the 11-point deficit.
Instead, Saint Mary’s would get the fortunate bounce it needed to spark its comeback. An errant pass deep in Cal’s end sprung into Matthews’ arms, and the center only needed a few strides before leaping into the endzone in a play he said was “nothing but luck.”
Matthews and the Gaels still weren’t done.
Now defending in its own half, Saint Mary’s Jack Carso gobbled up a chip kick and took off running out of his 22-meter line after calling for the mark. The heads-up play caught the Bears off guard, and the utility back gained several meters before being hauled down. McCarthy, however, used his timely support to rip off another long run – this one all the way to Cal’s eight-meter line. Amazingly enough, tight head prop Henry Hall was there in support to collect and distribute the ball left behind by McCarthy, and a phase later Matthews was in for his second score. Audsley split the uprights on the conversion that followed and the Gaels swung ahead, 27-24.
Cal would not go quietly either, though. The Bears got their hands on one final possession – forcing Saint Mary’s to defend for over two minutes. A scrum would eventually be called to the Gaels, and after a couple of hit-ups by the forwards, the ball was punted out of play to signify the game’s end and a Saint Mary’s win.
Matthews never doubted his team’s will to get back into the game, and was especially impressed with freshman Payton Telea, Oregon transfer Anthony Rodriguez and A-side newcomer Alejandro Duran – who each showed well under duress.
“Payton, A-Rod and Duran really stepped up. They’re very consistent and have been consistent throughout the whole year,” Matthews said of his teammates. “I didn’t have a time when I thought I couldn’t depend on them. They’re all very dependable players.”
The dramatic come-from-behind win marks Saint Mary’s first win in Berkeley since 1971, and will give the Gaels a legitimate argument to retain the No. 1 spot in the Canterbury D1A Rugby Top 20.