In Saturday’s playoff matchup against Clemson, a penalty kick in the game’s opening minutes led to an Anthony Salaber try and Russell Webb conversion for the team’s first scores of the afternoon. Though these actions seem only minimal in the grand scheme of things, they set the tone for the Bears to score seven more tries – three from Salaber – in the game’s first period en route to a 50-0 halftime lead.
Rugby is a game of spacing in which one simple action or move can cause a ripple effect that sets off a chain of events. This rang true in Cal’s 71-5 win against the Tigers in its quarterfinal matchup of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Championship.
The Bears’ work in the scrum and their ability to take advantage of space were pivotal components of the team’s strong first period. Cal’s tendency to dart outside offensively also proved highly beneficial, because the Tigers had no answers for the Bears’ speed in these parts of the field. This was made apparent in wing Miles Honens’ break away run upfield that led to Cal’s second try of the contest.
“Clemson played hard, and I think we matched them physically as well,” Webb said. “We just kind of let ourselves down at the final third with our ball handling.”
Cal maintained control and its lead in the second period, but the tempo of the game changed. The Bears were not scoring at the same rate as in the first half because of some unneeded turnovers and penalties, while Clemson ramped up its defense and held the Bears to just three tries and two conversions.
The highlight of the half though was when winger-turned-fullback Jake Goena took advantage of a mismatch and blazed his way up field to grant the Bears another try. Goena, who has slotted in nicely for the Bears at fullback and scored two tries versus the Tigers, was thrusted into this position in the wake of sophomore starter Troy Lockyear’s injury. He has now started at fullback for the past two contests against Saint Mary’s and Clemson with positive results.
“Jake is a great player. He runs hard and plays hard,” Webb said. “You know what you’re going to get with him. He’s a strong runner and is tough to tackle.”
Aside from Goena’s position change, the Bears’ starting lineup featured underclassmen such as scrumhalf Keanu Andrade, wing Sam Cusano, flanker Nic Mirhashem and lock Robert Paylor. These frosh-sophs have been key contributors for the Bears all season and their efforts continued in Saturday’s bout. Additionally, Andrade and Cusano — both freshmen — have started for the Bears’ in many of this season’s 15s matches and have bright futures in the Cal rugby program.
Cal by no means played a perfect game, but the Bears live to see another day. The team still has plenty to improve upon on offense and defense as they head into semifinal play. If the Bears want to keep advancing, sounder ball handling and less turnovers will be essential catalysts in fueling a deep postseason run.
“There’s no second chances now, and we are all aware of that,” Webb said. “It’s either play well or go home.”
Ryan Groves covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].