Defense wins championships. For BYU rugby, it wins three in a row.
The Cougars, led by their defense, overpowered the California Bears 43-33 to win their third consecutive National Championship May 3 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
The opponent was familiar. Cal, a team BYU has faced eight times in the National Championship, brought an 18-2 record into the season finale. Coached by Jack Clark, who shortly will be elected into the U.S. Rugby Hall of Fame, the Golden Bears played the goat in five previous seasons for the Cougars.
May 3, the Cougars were determined to end up on the right side of results this season, and they came out strong.
Within the first five minutes of the match, BYU’s Center, Paul Lasike, put BYU on the scoreboard, and the Cougars didn’t look back, rolling to a victory.
“I’m just happy for the guys,” said BYU head coach David Smyth. “After seeing the work these boys put in, they deserved this.”
Even though BYU scored early in the game, Cal didn’t let up. On the following drive Cal’s Andrew Battaglia scored, tying it at 7-7.
But BYU’s defense continued to make solid plays, keeping the Golden Bears’ powerful offense at bay.
“Our boys stepped up on defense,” said BYU fly half Jonathan Linehan. “They got through a couple of times, but we kept our heads up and that’s what did it.”
BYU then proceeded to score a try going up 12-7 but missed the conversion, keeping Cal within five.
Although the Cougars’ kicking game struggled early — with two missed conversions in a row — Jonny Linehan helped the Cougars by continually pinning the Golden Bears deep into their own territory.
The Golden Bears continued to fight and scored a try right before half time, bringing the Golden Bears within eight — the score 22-14.
“I was a little bit scared going into halftime because we just gave away a try,” Smyth said. “We talked about that in the locker room and knew in the next 15 minutes they were going to come out mad.”
Cal did come out angry. Andrew Battaglia again scored right away, bringing the game within three points.
“We had a little talk at that point,” said team captain Kyle Sumsion. “We told ourselves we gotta keep our heads up.”
After some great stops by BYU’s defense, Luke Mocke scored a try, increasing the Cougars’ lead to 29-19.
From there, BYU’s offense started firing on all cylinders. But as the Cougars continued to build their lead Cal frequently responded.
“We never did breath a sigh of relief because with Cal they can score three tries in five minutes and then it’s a whole new ball game,” Sumsion said.
Finally, at the 81-minute mark, the Cougars let out a sigh of relief as they became the 2014 Varsity Cup National Champions.
“This is nothing but a blessing,” said a smiling Linehan as his team celebrated all around him. “I’m just proud of my boys.”