And now it is down to two.
The two teams we all figured it would be.
The two teams who have battled for the top collegiate title since 2006
(Trivia question #1: Which team not Cal or BYU was the last to play in the men’s national college final?)
(Trivia question #2: What was the most recent year when neither Cal nor BYU played in the national final. Bonus – who were those teams? Post answers as comments).
BYU is undefeated and has not come close to losing any game. Their average score is 72-7. Cal has come close to losing a game twice – once when they fielded a largely reserve squad in the (unofficial) Pac-10 tournament, and once against University of British Columbia in February.
Both are significant. The first one highlights a policy that the Bears follow quite doggedly; putting young and reserve players on the field as Cal and being told “you are playing as Cal today. It’s up to you.”
In an interview earlier this season, Cal Head Coach Jack Clark told RUGBYMag.com that his most experienced players don’t necessarily play any more than those on other college teams. Where his team differs is that the underclassmen and reserves play a lot more than those on other teams. Thus, when they are under pressure in a tough game, either after moving up to the first team, or thrust into the fray because of injury, they are ready to perform.
The second game is significant because it is one where Cal was losing, and needed to score in the late minutes to win. It’s the type of game very few good college teams get to have, and it’s a crucial measurement of Cal’s ability. They came back and beat UBC, and then went up to Vancouver and demolished the Thunderbirds in the return match. They showed they can win the tough ones, and then put the heel of their boot on a good team’s neck, as well.
“There’s not much difference in this Cal team as opposed to last year’s,” said BYU head coach David Smyth. “In fact, I think they might even be a little bit better this year than they were last year. I think their backline is even more potent than it was last year and their forwards continue to dominate, they’re big and physical. So, I expect it will be more of the same, but even better.”
The Bears are captained by All-American and 2010 USA 7′s National Team Member and senior fullback Blaine Scully who also leads the team in scoring with 9 tries. The well-rounded Cal attack also has senior flanker Thomas Rooke with 8 CPD tries and junior wing James McTurk, who hails from England, having dotted down 8 times as well in 2011 CPD play.
The Bears boast the best back row in the business. Tom Rooke is powerful, intelligent, and committed. It was his responsibility, more than anyone’s, to neutralize Thretton Palamo last week in the semifinals against Utah. He did that brilliantly. Danny Barrett is an explosive player who can turn the game around. He did it against Utah. He did it against St. Mary’s. He did it against BYU last season. And Derek Asbun (who missed the semi) is just a hard worker who hits like a train.
And BYU? Well they hit pretty hard, too. And they emerged from a real tussle against Arkansas State in part because of their supreme physicality.
"Everyone I've spoken with close to the BYU program acknowledges this as their best team ever," said Cal’s Clark. "I really don't see any holes in their team. They have a good mix of raw power, athleticism and rugby skill. You can't help but be very impressed."
BYU has the best second row tandem in collegiate rugby in Mark Bonham and Viliami Vimahi. They have a halfback combination of Shaun Davies and Dylan Lubbe that has been playing together for the better part of four years, and know each other well. They have the best ball-carrying forward in college rugby in Ryan Roundy, and a thrilling backline.
But with all of that, the game could come down to two things: the front row and goalkicking.
In such a physical, close matchup how the front row wins ball, and defends around the fringes, is supremely important. Cal is expected to pick Jeremy Deterding, Neill Barrett and James Besser up front, while BYU will likely go with Mikey Su’a, Ishmael Tilalo and Ray Forrester. All are older, experienced players. BYU’s front row is massive; Cal’s slightly less so, but very mobile. Neil Barrett may have been the best tight five forward in the CPD playoffs. Su’a is enormously imposing when he runs with the ball.
That clash could tell you much.
And the other matchup is goalkicking. In the last two years, the ability to kick goals has been crucial in the championship game. Shaun Davies is reliable and unfazed. The same could be said of James Bailes for Cal. If either has a tough start, the game could turn.
And finally, it’s Cal v. BYU. They don’t particularly like each other. They have played each other incredibly close many times. It’s a special game.
“BYU against Cal is a war,” said Cal captain Blaine Scully simply. “It’s a game that’s 80 minutes long; there is no rest. We know we’re going to have to put everything into it, because every time they take the field they give it their all.”