National title on line, Cal rugby challenges Life’s undefeated season

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Maddie Hamnei/File

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Life is a force to reckon with — no rugby team that has faced Life has been strong enough to walk away with a victory. This weekend, the Bears will have to fight for their lives as they look to hand Life University its first loss of the season.

Cal rugby was scheduled to play Life in a semifinal game in Georgia, but because of bracket changes, that matchup never happened. The two teams, however, will meet in the championship round of the postseason at Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara.

“(I’ve been) doing this for a long time, and I never know when we are ready,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “I think we are excited for the opportunity, and that’s a good feeling, you know, to be excited to go compete.”

The Bears played some of their best rugby in Moraga against Lindenwood last weekend, and they will try to build up on their performance and beat the Running Eagles, who topped Penn State, 69-14.

Minimizing the turnover count has been the main point of emphasis for the entirety of Cal’s season, and even though an improvement was apparent against Lindenwood, Cal still has room to improve for its highest-stakes match of the year.

“We did hang on to the ball, vis-a-vis handling, better than we have, and I think we were reasonably good in contact, although we lost a couple balls,” Clark said. “Our turnover count is probably still too high for us.”

Saturday will be especially memorable for players such as fifth-years prop Kevin Sullivan and No. 8 Thomas Robles as their tenure in blue and gold comes to an end. They will be looking for help from their younger teammates, such as last year’s national championship MVP, sophomore wing Sam Cusano.

“The mindsets are different; I think everyone wants to represent the team and the university well, and I think everyone wants to do our best to get the result,” Clark said. “But I’m sure the seniors probably feel more vulnerable — you know, it’s a fleeting moment and time for them, and it will never come around again.”

Cusano’s unmatched speed and senior wing Justin Dunn’s powerful strides close to the sideline will be strong weapons for the Bears. Against Lindenwood, both of Cal’s stars registered two long tries. With Cal’s fast-paced offensive style, a repeat performance wouldn’t be a surprise.

“We have to, whenever possible, play good defense, and you know they are going to score points — they score a lot of points,” Clark said. “But we are going to have to do our best to make the game as competitive as possible as long as possible.”

The Bears will see a good amount of pressure when moving the ball forward up the field. One clear lesson from their semifinal win is that they need a better exit strategy when they are trapped close to their try zone.

“We had a lot of kicking errors because we probably kicked the ball more than we have throughout the course of the season,” Clark said. “And we looked like we shouldn’t kick the ball ‘cause we were really inaccurate in our kicking approach.”

Even a missed kick last weekend ended up as a Lindenwood score at the end of the first half. Cal will need to be extra careful handling the ball in passing plays while keeping the turnover count at a minimum.

“We still haven’t come close to playing our best rugby game,” Clark said.

Can Sariöz covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz

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