Two years ago, Cal rugby found itself at home in the semifinals of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Rugby Championship, needing a win over Central Washington to move into the finals against rival BYU. The Wildcats looked like boys playing against men in a 58-14 loss to Cal. The Bears find themselves in the same position this Saturday, except the Wildcats have the advantage of having added multiple international and former pro rugby players to their roster in the past year. There is no question that the playing field will be more even this time around.
“It just changes our mentality in terms of how physical we need to be,” said fifth-year Scott Walsh. “There’s been times in the past where we weren’t physical enough, and we know if we want to win this one we have to be physical up front. They’re big strong guys, so we can’t opt out of that physical battle this weekend.”
The Wildcats have had an impressive regular season and playoffs to this point. Their record is only blemished by losses against powerhouse programs BYU and University of Victoria, and a premier amateur team, the Olympic Club. The loss against BYU was by 30, and the loss against University of Victoria was by only five points — and Central Washington has only added more players since then.
Two players who have suited up for the U.S. national team will also suit up for the Wildcats, but that only scratches the surface of their new talent. Darren Cooper, a 23-year-old South African who previously played for a professional rugby team in England, made his Wildcats debut in the first round of playoffs against UCLA, and scored his first try within the first the first 10 minutes of the game. With his physique and pedigree, he should be a tough and physical matchup. Clint Lemkus, another South African and a former professional player in Italy, will be a Wildcat to watch at 6-feet-3-inches and 265 pounds.
Central Washington opened its playoffs with a 44-15 win over UCLA, and had an even more impressive 58-5 win over Utah on the road last week. When Cal took on Utah on the road earlier this season, the Bears ended up with a 46-19 win; their lesser margin of victory can perhaps be attributed to injury or the difference in energy level between the playoffs and the regular season, but it’s clear that the Wildcats are not to be overlooked or underestimated.
“We’ll stick to what makes us good,” said Cal fifth-year senior Nicklas Boyer. “We know it’s a huge challenge. Anything can happen in any given game, and we’re just focused on playing the best we can. Whatever they bring to the field they bring, but we’re going to focus on ourselves.”
The finals will be played in Provo, Utah, on May 7, so win or lose, this represents the final home game of the season for the Bears and the final time playing at Witter Rugby Field for many of the upperclassmen on the roster, including Boyer and Walsh.
“It’s a bit nostalgic for sure,” Walsh said. “You spend so many hours up here training, and you have so many good experiences. It’s definitely going to be a sad moment walking off the field for the final time, but we want to end it on a good moment so it can be a proud memory for myself and the rest of the (graduating players).”
Before the playoff match, a mixed team of backups and younger players will take on the NorCal Small College All-Stars. As the name would suggest, a number of the best players from a group of schools including University of the Pacific and Cal Maritime, who the Bears easily dispatched earlier this season with their frosh-soph team, will be taking on a mixed Cal squad as a test of their abilities.
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].