Despite the Cal rugby team’s undefeated record on the season, one only needed to watch the team practice Tuesday morning to realize that there is a heightened level of focus from the players and coaching staff going into Saturday.
The Bears (9-0, 1-0) have beaten their last three opponents by a combined score of 278-13, including last weekend’s 112-7 win over Cal Poly, but the team has yet to have many opportunities this season to face top-level competition.
Saturday’s 1 p.m. match at Witter Rugby Field against the University of British Columbia (10-1-1) should provide the Bears with just that. If Cal is going to collect its 10th win on the season, Cal head coach Jack Clark knows his team will need to take its play to another level.
“UBC is a really competent rugby team, and they are going to win half the possessions,” Clark said. “So we are going to have to play more defense this week than we have in the past three games, all in one.”
The two North American rugby powerhouses began playing each other in a home-and-home two-match series in 1921. Currently, the Bears are on a six-match win streak, with their last loss coming in March 2009.
Saturday’s meeting is also significant because it is the first time that Cal has hosted the Thunderbirds at Witter Rugby Field since Feb. 24, 2010. For the past two seasons, the Bears hosted the match at Treasure Island in San Francisco.
With an emotional match looming, Clark held a team meeting before training on Tuesday to check on the focus of his players. Because many of Cal’s younger players haven’t played in many close matches this season, the matchup will also serve as a good midseason indicator of how the team will play going forward.
“All the guys have a sense that this week is bigger than weeks previous, and coach having a meeting before reinforces that,” senior captain Seamus Kelly said. “You can tell there is a determination for this week, and everybody knows this is an important event for us.”
Kelly acknowledged that the players will also be looking to control their emotions at the start of the match.
“It is a challenge to stay under control for the first 10 minutes, which are usually pretty hectic because it is such a big game,” Kelly said. “It is such a faster game, usually, compared to the previous games we have had.”
Just like the Bears, the Thunderbirds also view Saturday’s match as a measuring stick. Since it is only their third match in two months, UBC head coach Spence McTavish’s goals for Saturday are simple.
“We are going to try and be a little more consistent,” McTavish said. “We are kind of hoping we can play a complete game.”
Even though a loss would not greatly hurt Cal’s season, Clark knows that a win over the Thunderbirds holds great significance for the program.
“This is the game that a lot of them care more so about than championships,” Clark said, referring to Cal rugby alumni. “They care about how did we do against the Thunderbirds.’”
Stephen Hobbs covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].