BYU rugby players celebrate after winning their third straight national championship Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium.
BYU rugby came into the 2014 Varsity Cup Championship game looking to win its third straight national championship and second straight Varsity Cup Championship. The Cougars faced a tough University of California team in a rematch of the 2013 Varsity Cup Championship and were able to hold off a late Golden Bears rally to win 43-33.
“I thought the boys played tremendously well today,” BYU head coach David Smyth said. “We knew we were in for a battle, and [California] made us work hard for it. Our boys just had a little bit more will to win today.”
BYU jumped out to an early lead with a Paul Lasike try in the fourth minute. California answered four minutes later with a try of its own. The next 20 minutes consisted of scoreless yet very physical play by both teams until BYU’s Joe Pikula, who had subbed in only minutes earlier, broke through for another try in the 29th minute to put the Cougars up 17-7.
A Chris Wernli try in the 34th minute gave the Cougars a healthy 22-7 lead just a few minutes before the first half ended. However, California’s Miles Honens, who had just subbed in himself, scored a try seconds before halftime to bring the Golden Bears within eight points.
“I was a little bit concerned going into halftime because we gave away a try right before,” Smyth said. “We talked about that in the locker room at halftime. I told them in the first 10 or 15 minutes [of the second half] that Cal was going to come out like a man possessed and that we’ve got to step forward.”
Smyth was spot on in his prediction as California opened the second half with another try in the 46th minute. BYU’s Luke Mocke was able to answer for the Cougars with a try four minutes later in the 50th minute. The two teams continued to trade scores throughout the second half until BYU’s Joshua Whippy scored in the 77th minute to give the Cougars a 43-26 lead and put the game out of reach. Cal put forth a valiant effort, scoring a try in the final seconds of the game, but it was too little too late as the game ended with BYU celebrating its 43-33 win and third straight national championship.
“We knew coming into this game that it was going to require 80 minutes of pure contact,” BYU captain Kyle Sumsion said. “California’s a great squad and they really played hard with a lot of heart for all 80 minutes.”
While proud of the players who saw time in the game, Sumsion made sure to give praise to all his teammates, whether on the field or not, who helped prepare the team for a talented and well coached California team.
“We have 64 guys on our team and I think a lot of times some guys get forgotten about,” Sumsion said. “Without them pushing us in practice, all 64 of them, we wouldn’t be here today. I’m real proud of one through 64 for getting us here today and coming away with a victory.”
Saturday’s championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium was played in front of 10,172 fans, most of which coming from BYU. BYU players recognized that and used the support to their advantage as the game wore on.
“[The atmosphere] was honestly incredible and that helped so much for us,” Sumsion said. “We have the best fans in the world if you ask me. Even at our away games we had more fans than most teams do, so this is a big win not only for us but also our fans as well.”
California now has a 7-3 record against BYU overall dating back to 1983. The Golden Bears were led by head coach Jack Clark, who owns a 559-72-5 record over 31 years along with 22 national championships, and Golden Bears captain Seamus Kelly, who joined BYU captain Kyle Sumsion on the USA National Rugby Team in qualifiers for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
Clark and Kelly were disappointed with the loss but gave credit to BYU’s players for playing a great game.
“[BYU’s] had an incredible season and I thought they were very good today,” Clark said. “On behalf of our university, I just want to congratulate BYU for that effort.”
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BYU ended the 2014 season with an 18-1 record, with its lone loss coming at the hands of Saint Mary’s on Feb. 15. Since then, the Cougars won 12 straight games en route to capturing the 2014 Varsity Cup Championship. BYU vice captain Johnny Linehan, who was the hero of the 2013 Varsity Cup Final, said he knows how special this victory is for the Cougars and is thankful for the opportunity to play rugby at BYU.
“It’s extra special this year and every year it’s going to get more special,” Linehan said. “Last year was extra special, but I’m glad for the boys who get the highlights this year and not just me. I’m proud of everyone that came out, and not just the players on the field, but everyone who supported us today.”
Kelby Jones is a student at BYU studying public relations and currently writes for BYU Rugby.