The history of Witter Rugby Field is echoed by the blue-and-gold banners that line the north fence, each one proudly brandishing a year. There are 26 of them, denoting the 26 times the Cal rugby team has claimed the title of national champion.
The field is not the birthplace of the sport but is where rugby developed its popularity among the collegiate ranks. The Bears are the most decorated team in amateur rugby, and the players on the field know that the mountains that watched over Saturday’s Autumn 7s have played audience to decades of rugby of the highest quality.
With the first chilly and foggy morning of fall not quite rolling away, the other teams in the tournament came to be defeated by a Bears team that proved just as strong as in years before.
The first match’s final score of 57-0 in favor of the Bears’ varsity team set the standard for the rest of the tournament, with the team winning its remaining games, 43-0, 47-5 and 36-7, on its way to a tournament victory that really just looked too easy. The Cal frosh-soph team also went undefeated in the tournament, winning its games, 28-10, 26-7, 31-0 and 43-0. The two teams left Strawberry Canyon with 50 total tries and a combined point differential of +282 in what proved to be a program tune-up before the Bears embark on the PAC Rugby 7s Championship early next month.
“The varsity team performed about as expected today, and the frosh-soph maybe a little better than expected. Both played well,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “I thought we were very intelligent with the ball today, and we moved it very well.”
Saturday also marked the first opportunity for many players to don the blue-and-gold stripes for the first time in their Cal career, as 10 athletes made their collegiate debut.
“When we had our first tournament, some freshmen and sophomores didn’t come by, so it was great to see them play and actually watch them first-hand,” said senior center Patrick Barrientes. “To see their two warm-ups, with two separate game protocols, it was great to see the result, too.”
The young group impressed throughout the day and won every game it played against the opposing school’s varsity team. Many of the younger players are fighting for a potential spot on the varsity squad, and the headliners of that group are sophomore wings Zachary Tavenner and William Fuller, who led the charge with five tries apiece. Many of the young guns were shifted around the field and given an opportunity with different lineups and in different positions. Clark is trying to sift through the young talent and see where his new players best fit.
The story of the weekend, however, was the varsity team. As they finished their day against Cal Poly, a trend quickly developed for the Bears. When they were on defense, the Bears would be spread wide by their opponents, as other teams were reluctant to attack directly. The excessive passing led to turnovers on the edges, that the Bears would recover and score — oftentimes right into the middle of their foes’ defense, which had been spread thin by their previous horizontal attack. The apprehension of teams to plunge into the teeth of the Bears’ defense is likely born from Cal’s reputation as a physically dominant team, which engenders future success by forcing opponents to enact tentative offensive strategies, as seen Saturday.
With so many new pieces being tried in different spots and the construction of the starting unit being more fluid then it will be in the future, maintaining cohesiveness was necessary Saturday. The Bears’ calling card on the day, however, continued to be their usual team identity.
“It’s selflessness,” Barrientes said. “It’s getting the ball to everybody’s hands, everyone being supportive and communicating, and finishing to the end.”
Contact Austin Isaacsohn at [email protected].