The Cal rugby team has every other squad’s number for the past two years — except Utah in seven-a-side play.
The Bears manhandled the Utes in the national semifinals three weeks ago in the standard 15-a-side competition, 62-14. But for the last two years, Utah has ended Cal’s season in the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship.
Last year, that end came in the tournament’s final. This year, the rematch to took place in Sunday’s quarterfinal at PPL Park in Philadelphia, Penn. And unlike three weeks ago, this time it was the Bears that got run out of the stadium by a speedy Utah squad — falling, 21-5.
“I think it comes down to a couple of missed tackles,” captain Blaine Scully said. “That’s just rugby stuff, couple of rugby breakdowns and we lose the game. It wasn’t systems that let us down, it was really good opposition.”
The Utes jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead in the second minute of the shortened 14-minute match behind a try by Don Pati and conversion by Blake Miller. The Bears had a chance to recover with Scully’s subsequent 60-meter dash, but the play resulted in a Cal turnover.
Then it was the Ute’s Tonata Lauti’s turn to dazzle the crowd with a race up the field — and unlike the Bears, Utah turned the run into points. The Utes went into the break up, 14-0, and put Cal away with Pati’s second try a minute into the second half for a 21-0 lead. In his final match for Cal, junior exchange student James McTurk scored the Bears’ lone five points with three minutes left in the game.
Offensive execution was hardly a problem on the tournament’s first day, however. The Bears blasted through Pool A unscathed, yielding only one converted try over the course of three games while scoring 88 points.
Utah, though, featured much faster and stronger stars that shone brighter in sevens than 15-a-side play. For Cal, which had only two weeks to practice the sevens style after winning the national championship, that transition to the new game was much tougher.
“You’ve got to recondition your instincts not to go forward all the time and be confrontational and vertical in your approach,” coach Jack Clark said. “When you’ve been hardwiring going forward for five and a half months, it’s difficult to convert a seven a side team in that short a period of time.”
The Bears closed their year with their lone blemish, but the national champs are not bitter about how the season ended.
“We’ll have to view the whole season,” Clark said. “Obviously it was pretty magical to win a national championship after all the team was put through this year. That’ll be where I tuck away my memories from this year.”
Christina Jones covers rugby.