Cal rugby one of favorites at Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship

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On Saturday morning, the Cal rugby team will be busy warming up before the sun even rises as it prepares to face up to six teams over the course of two days as participants in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.

Day one of the tournament features games against Boston College, Notre Dame and Virginia Tech, which will all present their own challenges — but for Cal, the biggest obstacle Saturday is likely to be the transition back to the 7s format after a short turnaround from the regular season of playing 15s.

The 7s game is much shorter — only 14 minutes of play with a one-minute break at halftime — and as its name indicates, 7s rugby features only seven players on the field for each team, less than half of what the Bears are used to playing with in a regular-season match. The shorter game and decreased number of players, however, do not mean that the teams compete on a smaller field: The field’s size remains the same, and as a result, the amount of running and the pace of the game increases exponentially.

“It’s a different game from a physical standpoint. It’s shorter, a lot more bursts of high-intensity work, sprinting, and ball-carrying and so on,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “7s is a different kind of shape. And just strategically, you have to move the ball around a little more. It’s not as confrontational. You’re not looking to have contact — you’re really looking to create some space.”

But the change of pace isn’t the only obstacle Cal is facing. The team is dealing with the loss of experienced 7s player Russell Webb, who is currently sidelined with an injury. Webb was an essential part of last year’s championship-winning team. This season, the Bears will have to compete for their third consecutive 7s national title without him.

If the Bears are able to win Saturday’s matches and move on to the championship rounds, they will be playing against a slew of equally talented opponents. Cal’s last game, during the 15s postseason, was a 30-27 loss to BYU in the championship game of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup, so the Bears are familiar with the high stakes that come with playing against top-notch teams.

“You’ve got to get ready to play, and you’ve got to crank it up and go compete like demons for 15 minutes — and then, you got to shut it down and try to get as much restoration as you possibly can, and then crank it back up again,” Clark said. “So you’re really up against the challenges of the format and also the challenges of really accomplished rugby teams.”

While the last championship run in the regular season didn’t fare so well for the Bears, they’re looking forward to potentially playing in another exciting championship game Sunday — but this time, they’re planning on taking the trophy home with them.

“It’s a big opportunity. It’s a big stage — being on network television and (in a) big stadium, lots of fans,” Clark said. “So I believe everyone is excited for the opportunity.”

Jessi McDonald covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected].