Cal rugby preps for weekend matchup against Thunderbirds

Ethan Epstein/File

Cal enters this weekend with a highly anticipated matchup against the University of British Columbia in what is sure to be an action-packed affair between two storied collegiate rugby programs.

The game will take place Saturday at Witter Rugby Field and is slated for a 2 p.m. start time. The Thunderbirds will present the Bears with a unique challenge unlike any that they have faced this season.

In their two matches against the University of British Columbia last year, the Bears lost both games. In the first game, Cal lost 20-15 on a goal line stand in the final moments of the contest, and in the section match, they lost  50-3 in a lopsided affair.

The Thunderbirds’ roster features players with a wealth of international and professional experience. Among these players are prop Clint Lemkus and center Nate Rees, who have played for Crociati RFC and Cardiff RFC, respectively.

“(The Thunderbirds) play against the men’s club teams, and this helps their own development. Because they do this, they have some older players,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “They bring a level of physical maturity that would be advanced of ours.”

Cal’s weekend roster will presumably feature a strong blend of experience in the midfield with a trio of fifth-years in flyhalf Russell Webb and centers Anthony Salaber and Patrick Barrientes. Additionally, senior flanker Drew Gaffney, who is coming off a three-try outing versus Arizona State, and prop Kevin Sullivan could be key contributors for the team.

Additionally, the Bears may turn to less experienced underclassmen in the match, such as freshmen scrumhalf Keanu Andrade and wing Sam Cusano, as well as sophomores — fullback Troy Lockyear, lock Robert Paylor and flanker Nic Mirhashem. Cal’s reliance on youth on this year’s roster is twofold. First, some of Cal’s old guard has graduated and moved on, thus forcing the young guns to step up. Second, the unfortunate leg injury to senior flanker Thomas Robles has led to greater utilization of players such as freshman flanker Thomas Spradling in addition to Mirhashem and Paylor.

Cal will have to play a clean game in all facets in order to compete with the Thunderbirds. This includes sound passing and ball handling in unison with a strong defensive intensity to go toe-to-toe with British Columbia’s depth, versatility and experience.

“We’ve narrowed in on the fact that our work in the forwards, in both the scrum and the line-out, are areas where we need improvement,” Clark said. “Overall, our ball handling, we are having too many ball handling errors.”

Though this match will be a big test for the Bears early on in the season, it offers a great chance for the team to learn. The 15s season is far from finished, and this matchup gives the team a shot at dueling with elite competition.

Cal’s program has big aspirations, as it is striving to repeat its place as national champions in 15s play. Saturday’s action could be the framework that the Bears can build upon heading into future matches.

“It’s a big step up in competition,” Clark said. “Typically it’s valuable to the team’s development down the road.”


Ryan Groves covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].