With future of sport at stake, Cal rugby looking for rivals to succeed

Matthew Lee/File
The Bears have raced out to an 11-0 start, winning three of their games by over 100 points. Cal's 28-18 win over rival UBC was the team's closest match of the season.

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The first and only time the Cal rugby team played a match in the PAC Rugby Conference, the Bears won 104-0. Their second match in the newly born conference isn’t likely to be much more of a challenge.

But regardless of any imbalance in the result of Saturday’s 1 p.m. match between Cal and UCLA at North Athletic Field in Los Angeles, the game must be played. With the future of the sport at stake in a rapidly shifting collegiate landscape, the Bears are placed in the unusual position of striving not only for their own improvement but for their rivals’ as well.

“(The conference is) something that has some growth potential,” said Cal coach Jack Clark. “And ultimately, I think it has commercial potential.

“But the point is, how do those teams catch up?”

Cal (11-0, 1-0 in the PAC Rugby Conference) has long been the standard bearer of collegiate rugby on the West Coast. The Bears have been arguably the best team in the country this year, and their wins — three which have been by more than 100 points — have come with terrifying ease. One of those wins, a 104-0 walloping of Arizona State on Feb. 2, was the first game ever played in the conference.

But while the other five PAC schools (Arizona, Arizona State, Oregon State, UCLA, Utah) remain far behind Cal, each school thrives on the others’ success. After the failure of governing body USA Rugby to react to changes in the sport, Clark and the other PAC coaches led an exodus from the organization last year, forming a conference based on traditional rivalries.

“I think that there’s only good things that come out of this (conference),” said Arizona State coach Gary Lane after his team’s loss to Cal. “I hope it expands where we can really brand that conference as a really high-level conference.”

UCLA (6-2) is one of the teams Clark most wants to see succeed. The Bruins opened their season with five consecutive wins, and their only two losses have come to Cal and perennial powerhouse BYU. Though the Bruins fell to the Bears in a shortened match on Jan. 20, 29-7, they’re one of just three teams that have scored on the Cal varsity this season.

“I think they’ve got a little bit of a vibe down there,” Clark said. “UCLA’s one of the teams that’s on the rise, one of the teams that’s better this year than they were last year and better last year than they were the year before.”

But while Clark plans to rest six or seven of his regular starters on Saturday, he’s more concerned with the quality of his team’s performance than the closeness of the final score. Even in a 176-point win, the Bears had room for improvement.

So how does the rest of the conference catch up?

“We want to grow the game,” Clark said. “We want more and better players and coaches. And I think everything that we do has to be anchored in that. And certainly our competition has to be anchored in that.”

For now, it’s Cal’s league to lose.

“I wish them all the best,” Lane said. “Honestly, as a representative of the PAC, I hope they do well this year.”

Chris Yoder covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @chrisyoder92.