Unbeaten Navy sent a very loud, powerful message to the rest of the collegiate rugby community Saturday, and all naysayers who didn’t think the Midshipmen were deserving to be atop the College Rugby Association of America rankings.
Senior standouts Lewis Gray, Jack McMahon and Matthew Thibodaux led the way as No. 1 Navy defeated No. 4 California-Berkeley, 33-28, before a boisterous crowd at the Prusmack Rugby Center.
It was a milestone moment for Navy men’s rugby, which had never previously beaten Cal, a perennial powerhouse with 28 national championships to its credit.
“This means everything for the program. If you talk to any of our alums over the past sixty years, the one team other than Army that we always want to beat and measure ourselves against is Cal,” Navy coach Gavin Hickie said.
Thibodaux scored three of Navy’s five tries and freshman fullback Roanin Krieger contributed four conversion kicks. After trailing 14-12 at halftime, the Midshipmen seized control of play and scored three straight tries followed by conversion kicks to build a 33-14 advantage.
Cal responded with two tries and conversions in the span of seven-plus minutes to cut the deficit to five, but time ran out on the visitors and the partisan fans who crowded into the bleachers and lined the sidelines erupted when Navy booted the ball out of bounds to bring the game to an end.
“It’s the first time Cal has come out here and it’s the first time we’ve ever beaten them, so it’s incredibly satisfying on two counts,” Hickie said. “Cal has always been on a different level and now we’ve joined them.”
Hickie highlighted the Midshipmen’s swarming defense that didn’t give the Golden Bears any room to breathe.
“We had to be relentless in everything we did, particularly defensively. We had to hunt as a pack. We had to keep going after them. We had to make sure they never settled into a rhythm,” Hickie said.
Strong winds whipping off the Severn River were a factor and Navy (13-0) chose to face the elements in the first half after winning the coin toss. Keeping the score close while playing into the wind was critical, Hickie said.
Cal (10-1) is accustomed to being the more physical team against almost all opponents and that certainly was not the case Saturday.
“I don’t think they expected to get beat so powerfully up front in the scrums. Our maul was very effective and that really set the tone,” Hickie said.
Thibodaux, a talented tight head prop who missed most of the fall season with a torn biceps, returned to action last weekend and was pivotal in winning the war at the advantage line. Thibodaux and senior prop Ryan Bullock were dominant at the point of attack.
“To have Matthew Thibodaux back at his best, just scrummaging the way he is, means the world,” Hickie said. “We need to have powerful scrums because it wears down the other team and also earns you penalties. Tibby is laser-focused on doing his job at all times.”
Thibodaux was determined to show the Golden Bears which team was tougher. “Our ferocity was the difference. Keep hitting them and never let up,” he said.
Gray, a fly half who may be the most versatile athlete on the team, was a factor all over the field. Hickie declared once again that Gray was the best collegiate player in the country and deserving of the prestigious Rudy Scholz Award that recognizes that status.
While all the players knew Navy had never beaten Cal, Gray called this a new era. All the previous losses to Cal came when rugby was a club sport at the academy. Current reality is that Navy is now in its first year as a varsity program and needed to validate its No. 1 ranking.
“The key was just toughness and grit — coming out hard and setting the tone. We knew we had to go somewhere dark and we wanted to bring them there with us,” Gray said.
McMahon, a flanker and team captain, scored Navy’s initial try and was the receiver lifted high in the air on all the side-outs. Hickie praised his leadership and overall effort level.
“My goodness, Jack’s work rate is simply phenomenal. He will just go and go and go. He’s the one who is really setting the standard for this team,” Hickie said.
Junior scrum half Sean MacLaney started the decisive second-half stretch by scoring a try that gave Navy the lead for good, 19-14 at the 52:37 mark. Thibodaux scored just over seven minutes later and his third try at 65:29 seemed to seal the deal. Krieger’s conversion kick put the Mids ahead by 19 with less than 15 minutes to go.
Hickie knew Cal would make one last push and was on pins and needles after a conversion kick cut the deficit to 33-28 with just under three minutes remaining.
“They gave us a scare. As great teams do, they came back. There were a nervous couple of minutes,” Hickie admitted.
With time winding down and Navy in possession of the ball, Hickie gathered all the players standing on the sidelines into a huddle and basically told them to act like they’ve been there before.
“We did not want to make a scene or a fuss. This is just part of our journey. When we win a national championship we’ll celebrate,” Hickie said. “We have to remind ourselves that we expect to win. Those words are the last thing you see as you come out of our locker room. We expected to win today.”
As is always the case whenever Navy men’s rugby plays at home, there was a large contingent of former players in attendance. They came out of the stands and ran onto the field to celebrate with the current players following the milestone victory.
“We stand on the shoulders of all the players that came before us. What we did today really solidified all the hard work the alumni has done throughout the years to establish this program,” Gray said.
Thibodaux added: “This win has been 60 years in the making. For all the players that came before, who helped turn this from a club sport to a varsity sport, we won this game for them.”
Both players acknowledged that a regular season win, even one as monumental as Saturday’s, was not the end-all, be-all. Taking down Cal, which has been playing rugby since 1882, merely increased Navy’s national visibility.
“Now it’s about holding that spot. Because the target just got bigger and everyone wants to beat No. 1,” Gray said.
“We have to keep pushing forward and keep getting better. We’re not where we want to be. We have a long way to go, Thibodaux said.