It’s hard to poke holes in a juggernaut like the Cal rugby team.
In the first three home varsity games of the year, head coach Jack Clark has been left to dissect win margins of 176, 104 and 105 points, respectively. Results lose their luster in the matches that are decided before they even begin.
But the University of British Columbia is one of the few teams that can offer the Bears a challenge.
“I think,” said Clark a few weeks ago in anticipation of Saturday’s match, “that’s the first time when we have to say, ‘Playing sloppy and winning is still winning.’”
It wasn’t always pretty, but in the first game of their annual home-and-away series against the Thunderbirds, the Bears (11-0) passed their first true test of the season, outlasting the visitors, 28-18, in an up-and-down battle that offered prolonged glimpses of a team at its very best.
But even the marquee win in the World Cup didn’t leave Clark satisfied.
“I guess I lied to you,” he said. “I’m happy that we won. And if we had to chase that thing down and win by a point, I would have been happy as well.
“But I don’t know. When I see our potential, I realize that it’s pretty damn good, and we ought to consistently hit it.”
In a jam-packed Witter Rugby Field, the Bears came out sharp against their toughest opponent of the season to date.
Cal struggled to move the ball on offense in the first half, but an iron-wall defense kept the Bears from falling behind. UBC (10-2-1) advanced the ball within a couple meters of their tryline in the opening minutes before losing possession after a number of crisp tackles by Cal.
“I thought our best offense was our defense,” said freshman Russell Webb. “We made more tackles than we’d made in the previous games, and I’m just proud of how we started together.”
In the 17th minute, the Bears finally broke through, taking a 7-0 lead on a long downfield sprint by senior Seamus Kelly. Two kicks in the waning minutes of the half, including a surprising drop kick by Webb, gave Cal a 13-0 advantage at the break.
But it was the team’s blistering second-half run that brought the crowd to life.
Within a span of seven minutes, the Bears quickly put the game out of reach on a trio of unconverted tries, extending the lead to 25 points halfway through the second half.
“They’re a team that really thrives on that momentum,” said UBC coach Spence McTavish. “You just gotta stop those things because they’ll kill you.”
But soon Cal took its foot off the gas. The Thunderbirds finished the game on a 15-0 run, cutting the final deficit down to 10 points.
“We didn’t close out the game the way we wanted to,” Clark said. “I tell you there’s a lot of lessons there. It’s a lesson-rich contest, and I’m pleased with how hard we played.
“I’m glad that they got the result, but we also have to get a lot better, right?”
Chris Yoder covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].