Cal rugby to battle BYU for national championship

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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.

Austin Isaacsohn and Andrew Wild cover rugby. Contact them at [email protected]rg, and [email protected], respectively.

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  • Gary Graham

    Congratulation, Cal Rugby! Wish my Cougs would have won, but we lost to a worthy foe who played an awesome game and deserves the Varsity Cup!

  • Walker Texas Ranger

    What a terrible article…..The average age difference between the two is 2 years not 6 as the article implies and if it were really the case that older players who haven’t played for two years and are out of shape and lost most of their edge were really that much better then why doesn’t the Y dominate on the basketball, football and baseball fields? This author is not only misinformed but terrible at making excuses……

  • epachamo

    Does any one have actual statistics, like the actual average age of the teams? I bet the difference is less than two years.

    I’d expect the “journalist” to do this kind of leg work.

  • epachamo

    It’s not by chance that BYUs best athletes (Steve Young, Jim McMahon, Jimmer Freddette, Ty Detmer etc.) were the ones who did NOT serve missions. A mission is no advantage.

    Stop making excuses!!!!

  • Keith Stepp

    BYU does not provide scholarships for the Rugby team. Unless I am misinformed, Cal does. If that is true I’d think that would compensate for age. Also, I played on the BYU rugby team. I can’t tell you how hard it was to get back in shape after two years off for a mission. I never got back in the shape I had been in before. Two years of age without the conditioning is not an advantage. Final point, after a mission, your priorities often change. Rugby drops in priority because one is older. GPA, career, and family move up and rugby moves down.

    • goldensacks

      Rugby is NOT a scholarship sport at Cal.

  • rando305

    Is this going to be streamed this year? It has been hard to follow this year. In the past, there was a page streaming the tournament.

  • franchementla

    OK, I get that you are students, and fans, and that you want your readers to understand the disadvantages your team might have against an opponent. I understand that you might not see that as whining or making excuses before your team even loses. But at the very least, especially at an outstanding academic institution like Cal, you can make a half-hearted effort at honesty and accuracy in your reporting, can’t you? Regurgitating tired old excuses that have been repeated and debunked for decades can perhaps be excused. Exaggerating and misstating facts to bolster those old arguments, on the other hand, cannot. BYU is not “exploiting” any rule, the rule is not “loosely enforced,” it is not unique to “collegiate rugby,” and nobody gets “roughly seven years of eligibility.” By my count, that’s 4 misstatements in a single sentence. And there are plenty more. Surely you know (as others have pointed out) that Cal has every right to use the same rule to its advantage, if it truly is an advantage. And surely you must also know that a rugby player does not age 6 years during a 2-year Mormon mission, right? The fact that your own coach appears to be mathematically challenged on that issue does not excuse you repeating his error. Sadly, you and Coach Clark run the risk of demoralizing your own rugby team. Their coach and the school paper already expect them to lose before they walk onto the pitch. That is an unfortunate betrayal. But far worse than that, you bring shame upon yourselves and your university by relying on falsehoods to reinforce your betrayal. If you are hoping for careers in journalism, you’d better hope potential employers don’t read this article.

  • Ken Lee

    I wonder where that Univ of Utah team is to play a conference team like Cal in Rugby or UCLA in men’s Volleyball? Oh, I forgot, the PAC12 got the short end of the stick in almost every way by picking the Utes a few years ago…unless it was a doormat they purchased…it’s okay…enjoy playing in those Ute Juco Stadiums and courts with little following.

    • bakerb60


      I am a BYU Grad and HUGE fan. I loathe the U of U fans that jump onto every article about BYU and try to make it about Utah. I am curious to know why you would do this?

      Who cares about Utah!?!?!? BYU is playing for the National Championship in TWO sports on Saturday! Celebrate that!

      • deibuchan

        The BYU Womens Rugby team is also in the National Championship Saturday, along with Mens Volleyball. Make it a trifecta! [Ken, get a life and quit worrying about other teams – there is no reason to put them down, especially in an article that has nothing to do with them.] Go Cougs!


    Pathetic loser talk, from a school that is comprises of little more than a bunch of coddled, mellienial, regressive, self important, liberals. I’m surprised they could find enough players that wont get too offended by the micro aggressions they will be receiving from a bunch of Mormon boys. There’s no “safe space” on the rugby field.
    And this coming from an atheist liberal.

    • cmscougar

      Haha, sounds like you’re not a Cal fan!

    • ZooZoo24

      Wow Tiger….how do you really feel??

    • John Hudson

      BYU’s advantage is lower academic standards and the spread of Mormonism in Tonga and other small, Pacific Island nations where rugby is a major sport and they breed large, strong athletes. I know. When I was at Cal we had the great Steve Finau on our team. Steve is from Tonga. Forty years later it turned out that Steve’s nephew had two sons on my son’s Pop Warner football team. I learned something about Tonga and how religious they are.

  • Robert Warren

    If it’s such an advantage, why isn’t everyone doing it? These players go out on a 2-year mission and don’t play rugby while they are out there. They get 30 minutes per day for physical exercise; mostly push-ups, sit-ups, and jogging. Some might have light weights, but most do not. The argument of older players has been made over and over again and holds no substance to it. What about the years BYU didn’t win the rugby national championship? I’m pretty sure they had returned missionaries on their team during those years, and nobody batted an eyelash about it.

  • BYU Grounds

    Jack, you should recruit Mormon players then. Or you can encourage your players to serve as interns for two years with the Peace Corp all over the world, where they do not work out, may be in third world countries, may get parasites, may lose their desire to play Rugby, and when they get home may decide its better to get on with life then play Rugby. If you think this is such an advantage please by all means do this. Oh and if you need some advise on this the coaches from BYU’s Football, basketball, baseball, etc will gladly inform you from a coaching aspect its horrible to deal with. But as far as maturity goes, yup they are better.

  • Sean Dog

    This article is really whiney. The main reason these guys at BYU are an average of two years older than Cal players is their missionary service. They don’t play rugby for those two years and have to work like dogs to get in shape when they return from their service. And you make it sound as if Cal has no upperclassmen (are the Cal players really all 20?!) which is wrong and misleading. Besides, Cal is welcome to recruit Mormons to play on their team, too.

    • bluekirty

      Or to send their players off to the Peace Corps. It’s not just religious exemptions that let you use that seven year window- Peace Corps and a couple of other things work as well.

  • RGBob

    i Love how they make it sound like BYU’s players are 5 or 6 years older instead of 2. If it is such an advantage, recruit a bunch of LDS players and send them off on missions. But stop whining.

  • CandidatusCA

    Surprising the Cal coach even mentioned this as an excuse. If 2-year missions are a competitive advantage, more athletic programs would take advantage.

    How many years was BYU not even allowed to compete for the championship due to Sunday play?

  • ZooZoo24

    …aaand when BYU loses in any sport, the “older” players also get the blame…you know, out of shape, loss of muscle memory, game rust, chicken legs, loss of team continuity. But, if it really is a net advantage, NCAA rules permit ANY school to develop a BYU-like “farm system,” e.g., send their players to the Peace Corps, church missions, military, etc. for a 2+ year layoff, with no serious connection to the sport, the entire 2 years.

    This argument is as old as dirt, but every clueless new writer picks it up like a fascinating new toy, crowing “breaking news” on the “sinister plot for athletic domination….” even though the aptly mis-named “mission trips” had gone on since the early 1800’s – well before most intercollegiate sports existed at U.S. universities.

    Bottom line, no BYU player has more years of playing experience than any player from a competing institution.

  • Roy B.

    This article uses the classic lame excuse that BYU is somehow advantaged because their players LEAVE competitive collegiate sports for 2 years (and not practicing or remaining very physically active while on their 2 year missions). Get real! Cal has plenty of reasons why they should be winning. How about suck it up and win on the field?

  • bigtimecoug

    That’s why BYU wins the college football and basketball national championships every year– because they have older players.

    • Walker Texas Ranger

      Too funny. If this were an article to be graded in any journalism class in the country it would fail. No statistics to back up any uninformed points, clearly personal emotion all through the article and completely exaggerated references all throughout… “When you ride into enemy territory with underclassmen going up against grown men, breaking routine is difficult”. This one had to make me laugh out loud. It implies a bunch of pre-puberty teenagers with zits about to go on their first date are playing professional grown men, when in all reality A HANDFUL of them are approx 2 years younger than the BYU players. All I can say is I hope Austin and Andrew’s journalism teachers aren’t reading this……they’d be utterly embarrassed……..

    • John Hudson

      Older is better? If older is better I’m an All-American.

  • Frankenheimer

    Let me add “Their older” to my list of things losers say. What a crock of crap. BYU has simply been better. If two years off was a good thing, every sport in the NCAA would be doing it. It is never an issue until BYU starts winning and then people want to bring it up. I really respected Cal up until this point.

    • rando305

      A reporter isn’t “Cal”. I’ve got a lot of respect to what the bears are doing. Two great flagship programs that have really enhanced the visibility of rugby at the collegiate level. I agree – the reporter failed to mention that those extra two years weren’t some sort of double red-shirt where the players became bigger, faster, stronger…

    • Pixilicious

      “Their older”?? CLEARLY a BYU student/alum, huh?

      At the end of the day, ARWU rankings mean a whole lot more than all of the Rugby results in history and, no, I’ve never respected BYU academically. Neither, apparently, does the ARWU with BYU cratering in the 300-400 area (when the school is as insignificant as BYU, ARWU no longer reports specific rankings). Cal is #4 in the world,

      So, old man, you should probably keep the whole BYU thing on the down low.

      • smandit

        Seriously? No one pays attention to some Chinese based ranking system. ARWU is all about research, and BYU doesn’t focus on that. Their focus is on undergrad education. US News and Forbes always rank BYU highly as they do Cal. Both great academic schools – it depends on your end goal. I graduated from the school of accountacy, routinely ranked best in the nation.

  • El Tigre121

    How lame! Are you the designated Bear Rugby excuse maker? I didn’t hear BYU complain when you were winning your championships. Lots of BYU students come back from missions completely out of shape. I’d like to even get a count of promising BYU rugby players that come back from missions and have lost their interest in rugby. Most of them work while going to school–not like the trust fund, legacy players at Cal. C’mon, be a man–no excuses.

  • Seabiscuit

    If the two years off from competitive sports was such an advantage you would see many football teams insisting their players do that. Nobody I would rather play for a championship than Cal. You want to be the very best to earn it.

  • Gayle Jackson

    I think the international players that BYU has is more of an advantage than the age of the players. They have a core of players that have played rugby since they were very young.

    • Yes. That is what I see as happening with BYU since their winning trend. BYU is recruiting experienced rugby players. Although Coach Clark finds some players from local high schools but the interest level and cultural background is not the same compared with some one coming from South Africa or Australia.

      • Clayton

        I agree. BYU used older players all those years that the lost to Cal… BYU, by better recruiting and coaching has become a better program. They had to be… to compete with Cal…! Who has won 90% of the nation’s all championships over the years. Should be a great game!

    • BYU Grounds

      Ummm check out the rosters of CWU and Arkansas State…..plenty of int’l players there too. BYU is an international school. And yes we do recruit those players but so can Cal.

      • Gayle Jackson

        St Marys has a strong international representation too. I wasn’t implying that BYU was unique in that regard. I was just pointing out that for example when the player of the game in the championship in 2013 was a Freshman from New Zealand rather than a 25 year old senior from anywhere, age really isn’t the factor that the author of this article is making it out to be.

  • David Day

    I love Cal Rugby. I have watched and followed them for years. I am also a World Cup fan, an international 7’s fan, and just an all around rugby fan in general. I am also a BYU fan, and an ex-BYU rugby player. What I am not, is a fan of excuses when it comes to this sport. I was a little older then the traditional collegiate rugby player, I graduated at 23, like most at BYU, not 25, 26, or 27. I also had to practice and play while carrying a full load of classes, work full-time, and help with my young family of two kids and a spouse, all while trying to get back in shape from two years of no sports. Life is full of trade offs and choices, I made mine, but I don’t think they gave me an unfair advantage over those that chose different. Playing 4-5 consecutive years in college with the same team, maintainIg game speed, and game shape, has it’s benefits as well.