It means so much to the boys, especially this year. We play for our brothers and for BYU … It’s the 50th anniversary year of rugby at BYU. It means a lot. —Jonny Linehan
SANDY — Trailing by 14 points at halftime, California rallied and controlled much of the second half against BYU in Saturday’s Varsity Cup Rugby Championship at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Fortunately for the Cougars, they had Jonny Linehan’s leg.
Linehan’s foot pass to Jared Whippy at the 61-minute mark, and Linehan’s subsequent conversion, gave BYU a 12-point lead, then the Cougars held on for a dramatic 30-27 victory over the Bears before a crowd of 9,033.
The win gave the Cougars their fourth consecutive national championship, and fifth overall.
“It means so much to the boys, especially this year,” Linehan said of the title. “We play for our brothers and for BYU It’s the 50th anniversary year of rugby at BYU. It means a lot.”
The Cougars (14-0) cruised to a 17-3 advantage at the midway point before Cal scored a pair of tries early in the second half to cut the deficit to 17-15.
A Linehan penalty kick put the Cougars up 20-15, then Linehan made a foot pass that will be remembered in the annals of BYU rugby for a long time.
Linehan lofted the ball high in the air from far across the field. Whippy raced down field, leaped up, and cradled the ball near the corner of the end zone over a Bear defender for the try.
“We’ve done that so many times in practice, and it comes off very rarely in the games,” Linehan said. “I saw we had an overlap out wide and we called for the kick. I guess I put it in a good spot but Jared, credit to him for making the play. It was his try.”
“I looked and I couldn’t see what was out there,” BYU head coach David Smyth recalled. “I thought, ‘Oh no, what’s he doing?’ I looked again and Whippy caught it. I just went, ‘Whew. That was good.’ ”
For Cal (17-2), Linehan’s heads-up play was tough to swallow.
“It might have been a phenomenal play by two guys or a phenomenal play by one guy,” said head coach Jack Clark. “Obviously, you don’t normally see a foot pass from the ground. We had a crack at that ball, but the kid made a nice play. Their three tries were like that. They were long-range and there was some brilliance in them. The three we had, we worked pretty hard for.”
Even after the heroics by Linehan and Whippy, Cal answered with a try to close the gap to 27-20. Linehan booted another kick that put BYU up 30-20 with 15 minutes remaining in the match.
But the Bears responded with a try in the final five minutes to make it 30-27 for the Cougars.
From there, BYU simply hung on for the win.
In the final minute, a Cougar player — thinking the game had ended — intentionally kicked the ball out of bounds because the scoreboard clock hit the 80-minute mark.
But the referees gave the ball back to Cal for one more shot at a potential game-winning try.
“The clock isn’t synched up to the referee’s time, so we don’t know when it’s over,” Linehan explained. “We kicked it out thinking the clock was out, but the refs gave them one more play. That could have been a disaster.”
The match ended deep in BYU's territory. The Cougars averted disaster, preserved the victory, and claimed another championship — touching off a spirited celebration on the field.
“It was a lot more fun when the whistle blew and we knew the game was over,” said BYU’s Kyle Sumsion, “rather than kicking it out, thinking the game was over.”
At halftime, the Cougars realized the outcome was far from over.
“We said, ‘Whoever plays better the first 10 minutes (of the second half) will probably win the game,” Linehan said. “And to their credit, (Cal) did play better. We were just lucky that we got a few tries and pulled it off.”
Linehan added that Mother Nature didn’t help his team out Saturday.
“It was kind of annoying because the wind changed directions and Cal had the wind for most of the game,” he said. “We were looking forward to coming out after halftime and having the wind. It was pretty close. We didn’t intend for it to be that way, but we still won.”
“It came down to the very end. Cal came on strong in the second half,” Smyth said. “ We knew they were going to do that.”
It marked Cal's third consecutive defeat at the hands — and legs — of BYU.
“It’s the national championship final. It’s not easy to lose in the national championship final,” Clark said. “It was a game we could have won. We played good rugby in the second half. It stings a bit.”
Meanwhile, the rugby title will remain in Provo for at least one more year.
“It’s awesome. It gives us longevity, I hope,” Smyth said of his program’s fourth championship in a row. “It gives us a good, solid platform to keep building off. The challenge will be staying there.”