Looking for a statement win after a loss to the University of British Columbia that is sure to still sting in the minds of the players, the Cal rugby team will come in guns blazing to its home match against Air Force on Saturday. With key players such as seniors Russell Webb, Patrick Barrientes and Eakalafi Okusi among those injured and unable to play, the Bears will need to dig deep to mount a victory and put their season back on track.
“We have a policy of next man up,” said senior George Vrame. “Everybody should know what they need to do, and as long as everyone goes out there with physicality and effort, we’ll be fine.”
History tells us that the Bears should be favored despite their injuries in this one. Although Cal and Air Force have not played each other since 2011, Cal has dominated the series with head coach Jack Clark at the helm, losing only once, in 2003. Additionally, the Bears already have eight matches under their belt this season, while Air Force has only played two. Air Force split its matches last weekend in Charlotte, North Carolina, losing badly to Life University before winning big against Clemson.
“They’ll be big and they’ll be very athletic,” Clark said. “I don’t know this year’s personnel well enough to provide specific details, but I’d be surprised if that wasn’t the case.”
Last weekend, the Bears flexed their muscles and beat Arizona and Arizona State by a combined score of 140-12. Those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as Cal has had no trouble putting up big numbers against outmatched teams, and those sort of scores should not be surprising or frankly impressive when considering the ultimate goal of a national title. While Air Force is not quite in the elite company of BYU and Saint Mary’s, they should provide the sort of match that sheds light on Cal’s chances at a national title. A win is expected, but dominance will be impressive in a way that it is not against teams such as Arizona and Arizona State.
In what will perhaps be a source of motivation for the Bears, Cal will be hosting a reunion of seven national championship teams from over the past 35 years. Clark coached every one of those teams except for the 1981 edition, and the ability to honor teams that have consistently been championship caliber over a 30-year period is a true testament to Clark’s coaching.
“Those champions have earned it, and if you’re not going to do it for yourself, do it for them,” Clark said. “Cal rugby has been successful for a long time before me, so it’s less about my term. It’s about the responsibility for us to do something.”
In a season that hit an early roadbump on the path to another title, seeing past champions can also remind the players of what is needed to win it all.
“I know for me personally, they are a huge source of motivation,” Vrame said. “Those guys went out and completed the goal and the mission we have every year. I’m honored to play in front of them and I want to come out and have a good performance.”
The Air Force match will be televised on the Pac-12 Network, the second time this month the Bears will be playing on TV. Cal Maritime will also be visiting Witter Field to play an untelevised match starting two hours before the Air Force game, in what amounts to a reserve-grade match. Cal beat the Keelhaulers by nearly 50 points last season and figures to win big again, even while playing a mixture of backups and younger players.
“We scheduled it to be a good opportunity for our young guys not playing Air Force, and I think it will be a close game,” Clark said. “It’s not coming at the best time (considering our injuries). I just hope we come out on the right side of it.”
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].