Cal rugby prepares for 7s play

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Timmothy Dawson/File

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Just 26 days ago, the Cal rugby team upset BYU — the  No. 1 team in the nation — to lift the national championship trophy for the first time in four years. As the Bears cheered and hugged and cried on the field in Provo, Utah, they celebrated the culmination of an entire year’s worth of hard work. As they returned home to Berkeley for recuperation and preparation for finals, what did the team enjoy as part of their post-season relaxation?

Well, more hard work, of course.

Over the past several weeks, head coach Jack Clark and his Bears have been transitioning from the 15-a-side format they have been playing since January to the much faster pace, Olympic-style seven-a-side format. While Cal has enjoyed much success in previous Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships, winning the past three consecutive national titles at the tournament, the quick transformation is always an arduous one.

“It’s a difficult transition, and there’s just not a lot of time for it. Part of that time is wrapped up in finals, being the end of the year,” said Clark. “But the boys have done pretty well; I think we’ve done what it is we could do, so we don’t have many regrets at this point.”

What the reigning champs could not prepare for, however, are the injuries that they haven’t been able to fully shake all season. The team expects to be without many usual starters this weekend, including sophomore Zachary Tavenner, fifth-year senior Lucas Dunne and junior Evan Coleman.

This, however, was a common issue during the 15s season, and Cal’s iron youth proved strong enough to carry the team’s load without sacrificing too much of the play quality. Sophomore William Fuller and freshman Fawzi Kawash made the team trip to Philadelphia and will perhaps be tasked with again playing with the starters.

This would certainly be a risk for the team. When there are only seven players on the field, each player is relatively more impactful than if there were 14 others around him to make up for a potential mistake or mental lapse. In that sense, there is little to no room for error, insinuating that Clark may opt to roll with a more experienced veteran to man the hole in the lineup left by injury.

This tiny margin for error is also extended to the entire weekend, as sevens play is held in a traditional tournament setting. Though Cal had an entire season to prepare for the playoffs in 15s, it will need to immediately perform at its best from the opening kick Saturday. Any slip, however minor, could mean a loss — and a long plane ride home for a team that’s easily favored to finish the weekend with more championship jewelry.

“There’s always an added degree of pressure (in sevens). There’s just not much of a safety net,” said Clark.

But, the Bears remain in good hands. Star seniors Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber — who heavily guided Cal to its most recent championship — will again steer the ship for a team that only needs to hit its elegant stride to take home the title.

Austin Isaacsohn is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].