If you had simply glanced at the Cal rugby team’s final box score of the season — a double digit win over BYU in the Varsity Cup National Championship game — you’d think it was a return of the Jack Clark rugby seasons of old: the Bears coasting through the regular season and into the finals with ease, and the team receiving just a bit of fight for the championship that everyone knows they will surely claim.
The truth, however, was anything but.
There was perhaps never a season in head coach Clark’s tenure that a championship was so unlikely. It took some special performances and a lot of luck to retake the crown with which the Cougars had emerged for the previous four consecutive seasons.
With the playing field in collegiate rugby so uneven, there are only a handful of games throughout the season that can truly be used to analyze the Bears’ level of play, because very little is learned from beating Arizona by 80 points one year as opposed to 100 the next.
The Bears’ first home game of the 15s season, the home leg of the World Series against University of British Columbia, certainly qualified. Cal has traditionally handled UBC very well, but last year they had traded home losses to split the series 1-1. The 2016 edition at Witter Rugby Field proved a legendarily dramatic match with the Bears coming inches away from a clock-beating try that would have given them the win, in what turned out to be a 20-15 loss.
The next was against a strong Saint Mary’s team in Moraga, California. On a rainy day, the Bears played their best defense of the season and rode the kicking and passing of star senior Russell Webb to a highly impressive 27-14 win — one that was sorely needed after the heartbreaking loss a month earlier to the Thunderbirds.
When all things seemed to finally be chugging for the 12-1 Bears, they were taken down hard. Riding into UBC territory looking to exact revenge for the heartbreaking loss sustained earlier in the year, the Bears couldn’t build any sort of offensive rhythm, nor defensive awareness, as they were ransacked by the Thunderbirds once again, losing 50-3. The game was the sort of blowout of which the Bears usually find themselves on the winning side, but on this day they had no answer for anything that the Thunderbirds threw their way.
Cal entered the national semifinal against Central Washington as penciled-in favorites to win and take on BYU in the national title game. But the Wildcats had other ideas. In a game that the Bears perhaps deserved to lose, the winner was to be determined by a last-second, potential game-winning penalty kick by CWU. The upset, however, was spoiled by a botched boot. The ball sailed wide left of the goal posts, and Cal celebrated the victory knowing that its season, albeit highly successful, was almost for naught. On to BYU went the lucky Bears.
If Cal had displayed some weaknesses — some imperceptible chinks in its armor — in the losses to UBC and the near loss to Central Washington, BYU failed to capitalize on them. Or maybe, this Bears team that had struggled with the limelight throughout the year, finally discovered its maturity when it mattered most. Or, maybe, they just picked the right time to play some damn good rugby. No matter the reasoning, Cal did just enough to win its 26th national championship as a program and walked off the field in Provo, Utah, rightful victors once more.
The game was in many ways a brilliant euphemism for the Bears’ season. There were setbacks along the way — missed kicks and stretches of poor defense that mirrored the losses to UBC and the near-choke against CWU. But this Cal team, like so many other times this year, played its best rugby when it absolutely had to and again rode the backs of its star players to a long-awaited crown.