Routine is easy.
Routine is predictable and not mentally straining. Routine makes life a lot less stressful, especially for a college undergraduate who’s looking ahead at looming finals, graduation and the life beyond. For years now, the Cal rugby team (19-2) has followed the same annual routine: Dominate the regular season and meet BYU (22-0) in the national championship finals.
Routine, however, can sometimes be your biggest weakness. For four years, Cal rugby — historically the premier program in the collegiate level of the sport — has been lost in the woods. The Bears’ arch rival, BYU, has ridden a wealth of older players to five of the last seven national championships — in the last three consecutive years, coming over these Bears in the title game.
To this point, Cal’s season can at best be described as up-and-down: Impressive wins such as the one on the road against powerhouse Saint Mary’s being counterbalanced by getting swept in the World Cup series against the University of British Columbia for the first time since 2004. And now, after barely escaping the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup semifinals against Central Washington with a win after the Wildcats missed the last-second chip-shot potential game-winning kick, the Bears will travel to Utah and take on the Cougars on Saturday in the hopes of reclaiming their position as the No. 1 team in the land — and break their fatal routine of annually conceding the crown to BYU.
BYU has exploited a loosely enforced rule in collegiate rugby, which gives players roughly seven years of eligibility post-high school graduation. They have fielded a team composed largely of players who graduated high school in 2009 and 2010, giving them both a big physical advantage and an increased field maturity over the Bears.
“We try to play to our strengths, and our strengths change. We try to add a few wrinkles, but it’s about attempting to take away what they want to do. They’re so big and physical, you’re not going to out-gimmick them with some little thing. You have to go into the den and beat them physically,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “It’s a daunting task, the team knows what we’re up against. (BYU) is full of 24-, 25-, 26-year-old guys. There’s no doubt in my mind that they’re more physically mature — you’re just a better rugby player at 26 than you were at 20.”
The pre-championship rounds of the playoffs have traditionally been just a technicality for the Bears — a warm up on their way to an assumed spot in the finals. But Central Washington very nearly played the season spoiler, and the Bears know the same sloppy gameplay they brought against the WIldcats won’t fly against the reigning champion Cougars.
“You’re not guaranteed anything, you’re not guaranteed the next game,” said senior All-American center Anthony Salaber. “In other years, it hasn’t been very competitive until the finals, but it’s getting more interesting, and (the playoffs) are only getting better.”
The programs have fallen into the pattern of playing one another for the highest honor in the collegiate rugby universe, and it would be to Cal’s advantage to ensure the programs don’t become too comfortable with the recent rhythms of each other’s games if the Bears are looking to disrupt history.
“It’s like Super Bowl week: People always add a few wrinkles, but the base plays are always the same,” Salaber said. “We play them each year, but we only play them once. I’d say we’re pretty well-prepared, our coaches have done a really good job game planning and pointing out all of the things we need to take advantage of. We’ll be well-prepared mentally. Being able to step out onto that field and play physically with them — that’s going to be the battle.”
Routines are easy. When you ride into enemy territory with underclassmen going up against grown men, breaking routine is difficult. The Bears have one last game to prove they’re up to the task.