Unsung heroes pivotal in Cal rugby’s success

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After two national championships in two months, the Cal rugby team has plenty of praise to go around. While a deserved heaping of it has been placed on star seniors Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber, there are many unsung heroes that were just as important to these Bears becoming the first in school history to raise a trophy in 15s and 7s.

It’s hard enough to get playing time as an underclassman when you’re on Jack Clark’s squad and all the more impressive when you can make significant impact. Sophomore Will Fuller looks primed to be the next great scoring wing for the Bears after a season in which he was able to display his penchant for finding the try-zone. In the fall semester, he gave fans a taste of his skills, scoring eight tries in two tournaments. After a slightly shaky start to the 15s seasons in the Storer Classic, Fuller rebounded to earn a starting position at home against UCLA in a varsity match, scoring two tries in highlight fashion, showing off his strength and speed. Fuller would go on to stuff the stat sheet against inferior opponents, but shining bright in his first varsity start at home gives us the best idea of what we can expect from Fuller going forward.

The truly great coaches tend to emphasize a specific facet of the game and ensure their team dominates. For Clark, that facet would probably be the power of a stellar line-out. In basketball, the ability to get the ball back from out of bounds is uncontested, other than in the last two minutes of close games. That is not the case in rugby. But the Bears hardly ever miss a line out, so much that opposing teams often stop contesting them because they know it’s a waste of energy. Leading that effort this year was senior James Kondrat. The ideal combination of size, hands and smarts, it’s hard to remember a poor play Kondrat made in 2016, in the line out or anywhere else on the field. In no match did Kondrat shine brighter than the Varsity Cup championship against BYU, and it’s hard to imagine the Bears coming back and claiming the crown without his performance in securing consistent possession.  

With so much excitement on the wings of the Bears unit, it’s easy to miss the intricacies of the middle of the field — where the big boys eat. It’s a huge part of the game and quietly decides many matches, especially close ones. It was in these all-important trenches that fifth-year senior Scott Walsh dominated. At 6 feet 3 inches and 257 pounds, Walsh was able to generate considerable push in the center of the oft-won Bears scrum. He and his line set the tone as to where the ball would be going on offense — and when it was time to try the middle, there was always a nice alleyway courtesy of the veteran prop. He also clogged passing lanes and prevented cutbacks on defense, forcing action to the faster players on the outside who could finish the play, as well as delivering the occasional devastating tackle. He will graduate this spring as one of the Bears’ most internally celebrated starters.

When teams win championships, they oftentimes rely on players who perform their best in big moments. For the 2016 Bears, that was fifth-year senior Nicolas Boyer. If Salaber or Webb were having an uber-rare off game, Boyer picked up more slack than he traditionally had to. This is perhaps best exemplified in the national championship against BYU, when the Bears found themselves on the brink of being blown out by the favored Cougars, down 14-5. With the usual stars not yet finding their footing, Boyer single-handedly shifted the momentum to Cal’s side with a stunning no-look-behind-the-back pass that led to an easy score that regained Cal’s momentum. It was standard operating procedure for one of the Bears’ most consistently clutch performers.

Austin Isaacsohn is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].