PROVO — Almost exactly one year ago, the BYU rugby team knocked off mighty Cal in storybook fashion, featuring a dramatic ending that won’t be easily forgotten.
Then-freshman Jonny Linehan executed an improvisational, game-winning drop kick as time expired to break a 24-24 tie at South Field and earn the Cougars their second consecutive Varsity Cup national championship.
“It was one of those games that was such a fantastic experience, having it on campus,” remembered BYU coach David Smyth. “We got out ahead, then Cal came back to tie it up just before the end, then we won it at the end. It’s the sort of stuff you read about. That was a great experience. The boys still think about that.”
One year later, BYU and Cal will meet again with another national title on the line Saturday (2 p.m., MDT, NBC Sports Network) at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“I’m hoping this weekend will be a carryover from last year’s match,” Smyth said. “It’s on a bigger stage and on national TV. We need to focus on what BYU needs to do to win the game. We can’t get caught up in the rivalry and the past history. It’s a new year.”
Certainly, the Golden Bears still remember last season’s bitter disappointment, and they will be motivated to wrest away the national crown from the Cougars.
“They’ll be fired up,” Linehan said. “After hearing some of the things they’ve said about us this season, they feel like they’re the underdogs going into this one. I guess to an extent, we felt like the underdogs. The underdog always takes that fighting spirit with them.”
“I don’t know if they’d use the word revenge,” Smyth said of the Golden Bears, “but they’ll definitely want to right what they feel was a wrong last year. Cal never expects to lose.”
“Cal has such a good program. They are so good year-in, year-out,” said Cougar captain Kyle Sumsion. “For them to lose like that, I know they're just waiting for another crack at us. They’re going to bring everything they have at us, because that’s the type of program they have. They're very similar to what they’ve been in the past. They have exceptional players.”
BYU and Cal have built quite a rugby rivalry over the years.
Including Saturday’s showdown, the two programs will have collided in eight of the last nine national title matches. The only exception was in 2012, when the Cougars defeated Arkansas State.
Overall, the Golden Bears own a 7-2 record against the Cougars dating back to 1983. Cal coach Jack Clark has a 559-71-5 record over 31 years along with 22 national championships. Cal captain Seamus Kelly joined Sumsion on the USA National Rugby Team in qualifiers for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England.
For BYU, a victory Saturday would give the Cougars a national championship three-peat. But that’s not something BYU is talking about. Instead, the Cougars say they respect Cal for what the Golden Bears have accomplished and the way they play.
“They’re very well-coached. They’re like machines. They’re robots,” said BYU’s Paul Lasike. “They’re in the right place at the right time and they play as a team. They’re not flashy, but they have the fundamentals down pat.”
While Sumsion loved playing on BYU's home field a year ago, he thinks Rio Tinto Stadium is the next best thing. The Cougars are expecting a lot of fan support Saturday.
“It’s an advantage for us," he said. "It’s like a home game."
BYU is grateful to be back in position to vie for another national championship. And the Cougars hope the outcome ends up like last year’s.
“We’re all kind of anxious. All season long we’ve worked toward this,” Sumsion said. “It’s also kind of a sign of relief that we’re finally here. But that’s not good enough for us. We want to walk away with the victory.”