The hot Arizona sun pounded the freshly besmirched Cal rugby team as it trotted out a starting lineup on Saturday afternoon that was peppered with more youth than the program is usually accustomed to. In total, nine young Bears would make their first meaningful collegiate start against Arizona, forcing Cal onto an immediate tightrope — for the entire match, the team would have to delicately balance player development with the potential for inexperience-plagued disaster.
On this day, however, the youth and the heat and the Wildcats couldn’t do much to slow the well-oiled Bears machine.
Despite the 61-12 victory against Arizona (2-4, 0-2 PAC) and the 79-0 win over ASU (1-4, 0-3), Cal (7-1, 2-0) can find many areas of its team that still have room for growth. When the Bears opened their conference play Saturday, they did so without veteran players such as Scott Walsh, Michael Bush, Tomas Zerbino, Thomas Robles and Russell Webb — who were all resting in favor of frosh-sophs. With about 20 years of collective on-field experience on the bench, the lack of presence of the team’s leaders was certainly felt early on.
As the new faces were somewhat struggling against Arizona’s best players, it was predominantly left to the Bears’ remaining veterans to set the tone for the young guns to follow. Fifth-year senior flanker Nick Salaber recorded a hat trick while fellow fifth-year senior center Jesse Milne chipped in two tries of his own. Junior flyhalf Jamie Howells also kicked a penalty goal, scored a try and put through four conversion kicks.
“I’m being patient with the young guys. It’s a bit of an investment in the future,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “There are times that it’s worth it for us to take the calculated risk of trying to develop the whole team, and for the time being we’re going to do it as much as we can. “
This mix has thus far been the trick. Cal has been able to juxtapose youth and experience so seamlessly into continued success because of the increasingly hardwired nature of its game plans. At a certain point in every match, each player understands where the ball needs to be and what he needs to do to get it there. To this point, the system has worked like a charm, even if it involves the inevitable youthful hiccups along the way.
“If you’re always putting your very best players on the field, then you’re always going to get your very best performances. If you keep mixing up the team — which is what we’re trying to do at this point — you’re going to start playing into a higher error count,” said Clark. “You don’t put (the young players) out there because you think they’re going to be great, you put them out there because you think that at some point in their future, they’ll be great. And for that, you just need game time.”
That necessary game time was again liberally dispersed Monday afternoon in Tempe and to a similar result, as Cal pulled out a victory against the Sun Devils. While there were a few more usual starters suiting up, there was marked improvement in the play of the less experienced players, most of whom had just placed 80 minutes of gameplay under their belts.
After a so-so game played primarily by new players Saturday, the team veterans made full use of the opportunity to stretch their legs in the shutout win. Sophomore wing Jake Goena gave Cal its second consecutive game with a hat trick scorer, while junior wing Evan Coleman and Milne each found the try-zone twice.
As Cal returns home with an early season sweep of the Grand Canyon State, improvement must still sit at the top of every player and coach’s mind. As a second tango with international rival UBC looms in the distance and the playoff tournament happens not long after, the Bears must ensure that they don’t have any stumbles as they get up to full speed.
Austin Isaacsohn covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].