The Cal rugby team has not only overcome each challenge it’s faced this year, but it’s bowled through them all with impunitive force.
But Cal’s noon matchup against BYU on Saturday won’t be like all the others.
Forget the 176-0 walloping of Stanford — Cal’s largest win ever — and the three other triple-digit wins over some of college rugby’s most esteemed opponents.
Forget the “World Cup” — the pair of hard-fought wins over British Columbia that should have been close but turned into routs of Cal’s ancient rival.
Forget the ease with which the Bears won the PAC Rugby Conference championship in its inaugural year, winning its five conference games by an average of 60 points.
Forget the undefeated regular season and the spotless 21-0 record. The gap between Cal and every team it faced was a veritable chasm.
It was all just a prelude for Saturday’s main event.
The Varsity Cup National Championship between two gritty juggernauts in Provo, Utah, will be the definitive yardstick in one of Cal’s more impressive seasons in recent memory. The capstone in what has been a historic season for the Bears will be the hardest piece to place.
“They’re a very, very talented team,” says Cal coach Jack Clark of the Cougars. “They’re well-coached, and they’ll be playing at home in front of a large, partisan crowd.”
Since USA Rugby began crowning national champions in 1980, the two squads have stood head-and-shoulders over the college rugby world — particularly in recent years. Only five times in the last three decades has a team other than Cal or BYU won the national title. No other team has won since 2003.
As the 21st century unfurled, Cal-BYU became an annual event. From 2006-11, the two teams squared off for the national championship six years in a row, with the Bears winning all but one of them.
But unlike Cal’s championships of preceding years, for which scorelines tended to favor Cal quite generously, BYU became the rare team that could play the Bears in a nail-biter. Four of those six championship games were decided by 12 points or less. Two were decided by just three.
This year’s matchup could be similarly close.
The Cougars (11-2) have marauded through their 15s schedule with Cal-like cunning, ruthlessly dispatching all their opponents except for two club teams. Since their new stadium, South Field, was renovated in 2008, the Cougars have never lost a home match against collegiate competition.
“(It’s) a really hostile atmosphere with the fans there,” said Cal senior Seamus Kelly. “It’ll be a major challenge.”
But the championship is more than a mere battle between two of the country’s best teams.
Saturday’s matchup will be the first final in the inaugural Varsity Cup, a collegiate competition that arose out of the dust of a crumbling USA Rugby, which saw its talent pool diluted after the flight of its top two members.
The Varsity Cup consists of just eight teams this year, but it includes the two programs that matter the most.
“It’ll really be a steep challenge for our boys,” Clark said. “But for what it matters, we’re looking forward to it.”