Winning championships is embedded within the DNA of the BYU men’s rugby program. The Cougars have taken home national titles five times over the last eight season — including four straight heading into the 2016 season.
Walking off the field with a loss has become such a foreign concept for BYU that California treated a 40–29 victory over the Cougars in the 2016 Varsity Cup final on Saturday as a monumental milestone. Knocking off the four-time defending champions on their home field to win a national title isn’t simply just a cool feat. For the Bears, it ranked among the greatest wins ever in a rich program history that includes 12 consecutive national titles from 1991-2002 and 27 total national championships in rugby.
“It’s a legendary win,” California coach Jack Clark said. “I told the boys in the locker room they should be very proud and I was going to talk about this win for the rest of my days. … It’s a win for the ages.”
Rugby sets the standard of excellence for other sports at BYU. What the Cougars have accomplished in the sport during the past decade is nothing short of remarkable.
The Cougars have played in the national championship game 11 straight seasons. They claimed four straight national titles from 2012 to 2015 and five overall dating back to 2009. BYU has only lost 21 games in the past 21 years and the Cougars went more than two years between their most recent losses.
Along the way, opponents not named California have struggled to keep things competitive with the Cougars. BYU outscored its first three opponents 256–43 to reach the Varsity Cup final. The Cougars averaged 85.3 points per match — which included a season-best 113–8 shellacking of Arizona State in the opening round — before their title game loss.
“To have this loss today is probably the best thing for our program at the moment. We had a great team. Probably one of the best teams I’ve played with since I’ve been at BYU. But this loss to me means that we’re not unbeatable. We’re not giants. We’re another team that got beaten by a better team.” —Ara Elkington, BYU junior flanker
BYU has built a multidimensional rugby identity over the past few seasons. On defense, the Cougars stifle teams with their rugged and opportunistic play. On offense, BYU gets the job done with crisp passing and explosive scoring.
California turned all of those elements against BYU and beat the Cougars at their own game on Saturday. The Bears scored 21 unanswered points in the second half to erase a 29–19 deficit and snap a four-game losing streak in title matches to BYU.
Such a loss stings, but it does not erase everything the Cougars did this season or in past season.
“They’ll spend some time thinking about things and going through a little bit of mental torment,” BYU coach David Smyth said. “But they shouldn’t. This was a great season. I thought they played very well in every game they played — except for a few patches today. We’re disappointed, but we’re not devastated.”
In some ways, suffering a loss could work to BYU’s advantage in 2017 and beyond. The Cougars return a deep talent pool again next season. The rugby program has drawn a horde of elite players from South Africa, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Canada and United States and blended those parts into a well-oiled machine.
Now that talented crew will have the added experience of feeling hungry and humble after being the kings of the mountain for so long.
“To have this loss today is probably the best thing for our program at the moment,” BYU junior flanker Ara Elkington said. “We had a great team. Probably one of the best teams I’ve played with since I’ve been at BYU. But this loss to me means that we’re not unbeatable. We’re not giants. We’re another team that got beaten by a better team.”
It’s a safe bet that even with the loss to California, BYU will not lose the status of being a giant in rugby any time soon. A hungrier bunch of Cougars only means a more dangerous bunch going forward.