Cal rugby faces upstart St. Mary’s with perfect regular season at stake

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Henry Ascencio/File

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Look at all the variables, and the Cal rugby team’s Saturday matchup against St. Mary’s has all the ingredients of an upset.

First, the Gaels (11-1) are the best team the Bears have faced all season. Undefeated against collegiate competition, they’ve made a mockery of their schedule thus far. Bolstered by big wins against Penn State and Cal Poly, this might be the best team Cal’s East Bay counterparts have ever assembled.

“It’ll be the biggest challenge we’ve faced so far,” said senior Seamus Kelly. “I think because of their skill level and experience, how motivated they always are when they face us.”

Second, St. Mary’s is one of the few teams in the country that can claim to have defeated Cal. The Bears normally lose about once in a blue moon, but last year, they dropped the regular season finale to the Gaels. The 20-18 loss was the capstone in a disappointing 15s season in which the Bears finished just 15-2.

Finally, the Bears are as battered as they’ve ever been, nursing season-ending injuries to a number of players whom Cal coach Jack Clark calls “the best players in the country at their positions.”

“It’s been pretty dramatic,” Clark said, “losing as many starting good players as we have.”

But don’t expect the Gaels to pull off the upset at 1 p.m. on Witter Rugby Field on Saturday. It might not even be close.

After a season of blowout victories against some of the country’s best upstart programs, only St. Mary’s stands between Cal (18-0) and its third undefeated regular season in the last four years.

Still, it should be an interesting game.

The Gaels are characterized by an open, creative offense that strikes most lethally after turnovers. The Bears will need to be disciplined on both sides of the ball to keep down the most prolific offense they’ve faced all year, which averages over 60 points a game.

“They play very skillful, fast,” Kelly said. “I wouldn’t call it a loose version but a very exciting brand of rugby.”

Cal got a taste of that style in last year’s loss, which wasn’t decided until the closing minutes. Although the Bears hadn’t lost to the Gaels since 1988, the loss was more a reflection of a St. Mary’s ascendance than a Cal crumble.

“I think they’re a great ballclub,” Kelly said. “I feel like every year I’ve been here, they’ve gotten better, and they’ve got some really, really top-level athletes. Full credit to them last year.”

But to a Cal team that has won every game this year by double digits, even the best teams have barely provided scant competition.

The Bears claimed the “World Cup” in two convincing victories over British Columbia, the closer of which was effectively over halfway through the second half. In early March, the Bears disposed of a Penn State team that was expected to challenge them, 100-0. Most recently, Cal put away Utah by 22 points, a team which came a point from knocking off Cal a year ago.

To a team that has never been in serious jeopardy of losing a game all year, St. Mary’s will be a stiff test.

But considering Cal has yet to hit its ceiling, the odds of an upset don’t look good.

“We haven’t accomplished much yet,” Kelly said. “But I think we have the potential.”

Chris Yoder covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @christiancyoder.