It says a lot about the disparity of college rugby, and the strength of the Bears’ program when the playoffs offer a chance to rest the core of your team and manage playing time. That will indeed be the case when Cal takes on Texas at home in the opening round of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championships this Saturday at Witter Field.
This will be the second year in a row that the Bears and the Longhorns face off in the postseason, and it’s not a surprise to see Cal decide this matchup is not worth the wear on its core players after last year’s 100-7 victory on the road, which was played primarily by backups and underclassmen. With a tough matchup on the road against Army possibly looming in the second round and rival BYU presumably waiting in the finals, strong performances from the starters will be much needed, and the Bears will look to ensure that they are able to deliver.
“We’re going to start a good team against Texas,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “Ten or 12 of our starters will be out there (to start). We’ll get them off and put in some reserve grade players. I want our guys to play a little, but I want us to get through and be healthy (for the next round). The first round is the first round and I don’t think we’ll be challenged. But after that, right away it gets really difficult.”
Texas had a fairly successful 7s season, playing well in the Red River Conference 7s tournament and finishing in second place. But it has only played six matches in the 15s season, losing five and tying one. The late season has seen some improvement in the Longhorns’ play, going from being blown out by fellow Red River Conference bottom dwellers to a narrow loss against second-place Oklahoma last week. But coming into Witter Field, UT will be confronted with a level of play it simply has not seen since, well, last year’s match against the Bears.
“(Texas) is an improving program, and we’re not trying to step it back at all. We’re coming to practice with a different mindset coming into the postseason, keeping in mind that it is a do or die situation,” said fifth-year senior Lucas Dunne. “Every week we need to improve and put our best foot forward.”
UT will not be Cal’s only foe Saturday. A regular season match against Santa Clara, which was originally scheduled for mid-March, was rescheduled to this Saturday and will be played at 2 p.m., two hours after the official start time for the match against the Longhorns. And while the match against UT is intended to be played by a mixture of backups and some younger players, the game against Santa Clara is specifically intended for only the frosh/soph team.
Clark also started a frosh/soph team in the Bears’ last game, a road match against Stanford. The result was a lopsided 121-5 win, with freshman Fawzi Kawash leading the way with four tries. Kawash had started only one other varsity game on the season before his impressive game against the Cardinal, and will look to repeat against Santa Clara. Also featuring in that game will be sophomore Will Fuller who has proven to be a sparkplug on offense whenever he has seen the field this season, including a three-try performance in that same game against Stanford.
This will prove to be the Bears’ second-to-last home match of the 15s season, assuming they advance past the second round against the winner of Army versus Oklahoma. So for the seniors, in their last few games at Witter Field, there is a little something extra on the line.
“That’s what single elimination rugby is about,” Clark said. “You never know when the last game is, and if this will be the last game at home. (It’s) electrifying for that reason.”
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].