Cal rugby travels inland to face St. Mary’s

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Karen Chow/File

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The drive from Berkeley to Moraga is 12 miles — between a 20- and 30-minute drive, depending on traffic. Being just a little south and a little east, it’s a truly beautiful trip through tall trees and wildlife. Plus, the spring drizzle that’s expected Saturday afternoon for the match between Cal and Saint Mary’s should coat the entire experience in a cozy dampness.

But if the Bears squander their opportunity and suffer a loss to the national powerhouse Gaels, the drive home will be long and miserable.

As the season progresses, the 10-1 Bears continually find themselves looking not only in the mirror but across the rugby landscape at BYU  — the team that has taken the national championship from Cal for three consecutive years. In this white-hot rivalry, mutual opponents are a vital means of comparison for two teams that cannot possibly meet until the playoffs.

The Gaels recently lost to BYU by a single point, a 29-30 barnburner that proves the strength of the 5-2 Saint Mary’s side. The team also boasts an impressive stash of All-Americans. Senior center Dylan Audsley and senior scrumhalf Holden Yungert hold down the backline, while senior prop Dino Waldren presents his own challenges to the front.

While stiff competition always seems to excite these Bears into their best performances, the squad will again limp into the contest seriously depleted by injury. A week after starting only five of its original projected 15 starters against UCLA, Cal’s suspended in constant limbo health-wise, losing players as quickly as it gets them back.

“Unfortunately, I think we may have lost a couple more guys this week. We’re unclear of (Nicklas) Boyer’s status, and (Jake) Goena pulled up funny today. Right now we don’t have a starting lineup because we’re waiting to see which guys get cleared. The injury bug is still here,” said head coach Jack Clark. “Russell Webb’s coming back from injury and will give it a go, and so will Lucas Dunne. But to be fair, we’re pretty compromised.”

It’s this exact situation that Cal prepared for early in the season when it gave extended minutes to younger players. Giving the young bucks varsity playing time seasoned them in a manner that practice simply never could, and to this point they have performed well, particularly wing William Fuller. The sophomore scored two pretty tries against UCLA, making a strong case to get the go again this Saturday.

Partly due to the Bears’ esteemed upcoming opponent, and undoubtedly also in part due to Clark fearing continued injuries, the team has scaled back practices a bit this week.

“We’ve backed off a bit, trying to be as fresh as possible going into the weekend. That’s the only major change this week,” Clark said.

The measure seems counterintuitive for a Cal team that rides into a midseason valley of death in Moroga appearing underprepared. But, in some ways, it’s fitting. The Bears’ entire season thus far has been defined by team development. And now, as they stare another sturdy opponent in the face, they still focus mainly on themselves. Cal understands that there’s a level it can reach that no team can match — it just hopes to achieve it amidst a storm of injuries that has seemingly struck at the worst time.

Austin Isaacsohn covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].