Cal rugby falls to Thunderbirds in action-packed affair

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The University of British Columbia set the tone early against the Bears by showcasing a blend of skill and physicality against a Cal team with a plethora of youth in its starting 15. The Bears showed grit and determination in an experience that will most likely prove highly beneficial moving forward, but the Thunderbirds ultimately won, 28-17.

After a first half that saw UBC take a commanding 28-3 lead by showing off its superior athleticism, Cal put up a grand fight in the second half by shutting out the Thunderbirds and posting two tries of its own. It was an impressive showing of resiliency that brought Cal back into the game post-halftime.

“We played a lot of really good defense, we were unlucky to maybe not get a couple scores in the first half,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “I thought we just built off that in the second half and did pretty well”.

In the early part of the contest, the Thunderbirds won a scrum and lineout that the set the stage for them to capitalize with a Sam Clark try and Adam McQueen conversion. This chain of events was the starting point for UBC’s early scoring barrage.

After that, the Thunderbirds showed they had speed as well as brawn, going half the length of the field on a spring to the try zone with excellent passing and fast feet from large players. Cal, though, kept fighting and showed its drive to compete against an opponent of this caliber. This was made apparent at the twelve-minute mark of the first half, UBC up 14-0, when the Thunderbirds broke their way up field en route to another clear scoring opportunity, but the Bears’ tenacious defense kept them out of the try zone.

The Thunderbirds’ physicality in the trenches and sound passing while working up field, however, is what led to two more first-half tries that put them up 28-3. Cal’s only first period points came courtesy of a made penalty kick by fifth-year flyhalf Russell Webb. In the second half, Cal worked its way back into the game courtesy of some excellent defensive play. This defense was pivotal in an effort to open up the Bears’ offense.

Cal had the shot it had been longing for early on in the second period. Sophomore fullback Troy Lockyear sped his way up field and had freshman wing Sam Cusano on his outside. After the defense bent toward Lockyear, Cusano was in a prime position to score, yet Lockyear did not seize the opportunity to pass for a probable try.

Though the Bears could not capitalize on this clear chance to score, other opportunities would soon arise into the later moments of the game. Excitement ensued among Cal fans when senior flanker Drew Gaffney worked his way into the try zone and Webb followed with a conversion.

At this point, Cal was down 28-10 with minimal time left in the match. A few more minutes passed swiftly, but the Bears’ sound defense did not let up and their second-half shutout was still intact. Cal, in its final possession of the game, then worked its way to the goal line and was primed for another score. Sophomore scrumhalf Fawzi Kawash ultimately capitalized with another Bears try that, paired with a Webb conversion, made the final score 28-17.

Although there was simply not enough time left for Cal to battle all the way back, the game’s finish showed that the Bears have the skill and resiliency to successfully compete against a team of the Thunderbirds’ stature. Furthermore, this game was a great learning experience for Cal’s young players. The Bears started eight underclassmen against UBC in Saturday’s contest. The freshmen starters included Cusano, along with hooker Sid Holland, prop Damon Wiley, flanker Thomas Spradling and scrumhalf Keanu Andrade. In addition, the sophomore starters were Lockyear, flanker Nic Mirhashem and lock Robert Paylor. These emerging talents got a feel for some elite competition, which bodes well for their development as the Bears inch closer to playoff time.

“They (underclassmen athletes) were absolutely immense,” Webb said. “It didn’t feel like there was any age group in our squad. It was just one team: no years, no freshmens, no sophomores. Just one Cal rugby team.”

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