It wasn’t pretty, but the Cal rugby team’s 51-29 win over the University of Utah on Saturday was historic. The Bears clinched the inaugural PAC Rugby Conference title and hosted homecoming at Witter Rugby Field for the first time in three years.
But the memorable afternoon did not mask the team’s dissatisfaction with its performance. A lack of consistent possession on offense with momentary lapses on defense against a strong opponent made for the closest conference match the Bears had all season.
“It wasn’t our happiest performance, but they are a pretty good team and we won the game comfortably,“ said Cal coach Jack Clark. “We were just OK the whole day.”
Clark identified the size and strength of the Utes (7-4, 2-2 in the PAC Rugby Conference) as an area of concern for the Bears heading into the match, and Utah’s physicality in scrums and rucks proved to be a tough test.
Cal (18-0, 5-0 in the PAC Rugby Conference) jumped out to an early 17-0 lead on a penalty kick from fullback Jake Anderson and converted tries by center Seamus Kelly and flanker Michael Bush.
The Bears were not able to extend their lead, and in the final 15 minutes of the first half, Utah finished on a 17-5 run. The run included a try just before time expired, which cut Cal’s lead to 22-17.
But for the second week in a row, adjustments from the coaching staff and players at halftime helped the Bears secure the win. Second-half replacements Danny Barrett and Alec Gletzer provided the spark of energy that Cal lacked.
“I just wanted to be fresh legs and get as much work done as I can,” Barrett said. “Me and Alec had a couple of words with each other — we’ve got to be the difference-makers.
“It’s kind of like an unwritten rule almost that if you come on in a substitution role, then you’re the new guys. You’ve got the fresh legs; let’s see what you can do.”
The results were immediately evident on the scoreboard. In the first five minutes of the second half, the Bears responded with a penalty kick from Anderson and a converted try from wing Andrew Battaglia to push the lead to 32-17.
“I think the biggest problem is that we didn’t connect one momentum to the next momentum,” said Utah’s assistant coach Jon Law. “It was that first five minutes of the second half that really dictated the rest of the game.”
Utah’s physicality got the attention of the Bears, as the Utes were a strong opponent for a team preparing for the final stretch of the season.
“I love the competition that we had,” said Cal forward J.P. Hurrell. “Especially in the front row, I thought we really brought it today, and we really stepped our game up from last week and the weeks previous to this.”
The match also was a preview of a team the Bears could see in the postseason.
“I wouldn’t want to be a team facing them in the Varsity Cup,” said Kelly of the Utes. “I think they are building some momentum, so credit to them.”
Stephen Hobbs covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]