Maybe it was the weather. The chilly Sunday afternoon in Vancouver was dampened by some light showers that no doubt made the ball, the field and the Thunderbirds more slippery for the Bears to handle. But the Cal rugby team had just soundly beaten a Saint Mary’s team 27-14 in the pouring rain a couple of weeks earlier.
Maybe it was the traveling. After the flight from northern California to Seattle and the bus across the border to the University of British Columbia, plus the seemingly beneficial 15-day rest Cal had enjoyed coming into the contest, the Bears may have had too much time to overthink their upcoming match against North America’s best. But this team is so well-coached that they’re rarely, if ever, haunted by mental lapses.
The truth is, there may be no single reason why the Bears lost the second half of the “World Cup” series by an eyebrow-raising score of 50-3 against the Thunderbirds over the weekend. For a proud Cal team that’s usually on the right side of huge blowouts, the separation in quality of rugby between the Bears and their opponent was more noticeable than ever in recent memory. Even the team couldn’t seem to diagnose the perfect storm of defeat that they found themselves in the eye of.
“We got outplayed in just about every facet of the game. At this point, there’s just a lot more questions than answers,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “There’s no excuses. We didn’t handle the situation as well as we could. It was always going to be a difficult contest, and it would have required a great performance — a very gutsy performance. We just weren’t up for it.”
It wasn’t that the Bears played specifically horrid defense on the day, or that their passing wasn’t crisp. It wasn’t even that their trademark physicality was absent. The whole team whole just seemed to operate at about half of their potential. Passes that are usually routine procedure, or play sets run hundreds of times in practice, were suddenly impossible to convert. The Bears’ only recognizable offensive output came off the foot of senior Harry Adolphus, bringing the score to 14-3 in the 14th minute. That was the closest the Bears would come all day.
And on defense, the Bears seemed to identify what was coming at them on most plays, yet still failed to slow the Thunderbirds’ progress. Against a team as widely talented as UBC, Cal struggled mightily to contain any piece of the Thunderbird offense. Although UBC put up seven tries, no scorer had more than one apiece. It was a truly confusing game, and there will perhaps never be a conclusive determination as to what happened on that foggy field.
In a situation so packed full of unanswered questions, one thing remains crystal clear: The team must improve. The now-two straight losses to the Thunderbirds prove that while the Bears may feast on the smaller schools of the PAC Rugby Conference — and even the rest of the country — the team as a whole is still not ready for bouts with the heavyweight contenders they believe themselves to be among. They’ve shown flashes of true brilliance, such as the aforementioned big victory against Saint Mary’s, a team that maintains a consistent top-five national rank by Rugby Today. But those moments are so intertwined with spots of immaturity, and constant speed bumps of injuries, that one wonders if this Bears team is ready for the true heavy hitters come playoff time. For Clark and his team, the season is simply ending too quickly to still be dealing with growing pains.
Austin Isaacsohn covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].