The Cal rugby team just has one more shot to notch a season-defining win.
On Sunday, the Bears will head out to Moraga, Calif., for a 1 p.m. matchup with Saint Mary’s. As Cal will not be competing in a 15-player postseason tournament due to its withdrawal from the College Premier Division earlier this year, this will mark the final 15’s match of the season for the squad. The team will be competing in a 7-player national championship tournament in June, but will not be able to defend its national championship from last season for 15s.
And as the team’s final opponent, Saint Mary’s will have to suffice as a measuring stick for one of the most intriguing Cal rugby teams in recent history.
“It’s a pretty big match for us. They’re one of the better teams we’re playing this year,” said junior Seamus Kelly. “It’ll be a unique challenge, but we’ll be ready for it.”
At many instances this year, the Bears have proven to be too young and inexperienced, plagued by spotty ball handling and mental lapses. Both were on display in a 22-20 loss to Cal Poly on Feb. 25 — the team’s first since 2009.
But Cal also showed steady growth throughout the year, and appears to be finally hitting its peak. After scraping and clawing its way to a gritty 13-12 win over powerhouse British Columbia in early February, the squad turned the March rematch into a tour de force, physically dominating for a 46-20 win on the Thunderbirds’ home field.
Saint Mary’s is a more than worthy opponent, and should be a good litmus test for Cal’s true ability as a team. The Gaels run an aggressive style of play, often starting possessions from deep in their own zone — a style that Cal has yet to face this year.
“They don’t think much about field position as much as they think about being adventurous with their possessions,” said coach Jack Clark. “Sometimes it causes problems for them, but we’ve also seen them run the ball off their goal line very successfully and cause all sorts of problems.”
In 2012, the teams have played six common opponents, with each squad winning five matchups.
And while the Gaels are coming fresh off a spring tour through Ireland and Wales, the Bears’ top side hasn’t played since March 25, and will likely have to shake off some rust. They’ll also be playing without senior Danny Barrett, who suffered a season-ending injury against British Columbia. Clark has referred to Barrett as the best collegiate rugby player in America.
“He’s such a key member of our team and such an explosive player — probably the most explosive player in college rugby,” Clark said. “It’s a monster loss for the team.”
With all things considered, this could end up being Cal’s staunchest test of the season. But for the team looking to prove its legitimacy and to ingrain itself into its own storied history, this is a perfect opportunity.