Cal rugby starts its quest for another title

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This Saturday in South Carolina, Cal begins its quest for the prized 15s national championship in a quarterfinal matchup against Clemson in the Penn Mutual Cup Varsity Rugby Championship series. The Tigers decisively defeated Dartmouth last Saturday, 39-26, in a first-round bout that now sets the stage for the Bears to stop the Tigers in their tracks.

Though Clemson was down early against the Big Green, it fought back with a duet of tries from lock Liam Hellstrom and flanker Joel Jaldin in the match’s first period. In the second half, the Tigers’ ability to work through tackles and find their way into the try zone continued with winger Colin Gregory leading the way with two tries of his own.

“The thing we were all most impressed with was they’re pretty good in contact, they bumped their legs and wanted to go north and south,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “They had a bunch of good ball carriers — hard-running guys — who were hard to get on the ground.”

Cal will need a strong defensive showing to neutralize Clemson’s offensive potential. It will be crucial for the Bears to be crisp with their tackling in an effort to slow down a Tigers team that will be aiming to gain meters after contact. Clemson’s roster also features a strong blend of size in the front row, nimbleness at the lock positions and seasoned players in the back row that could potentially present challenges to the Bears both offensively and defensively.

The Bears, however, are battle tested and have grown considerably through the course of this rugby 15s season. Cal has faced off against strong opponents such as the University of British Columbia and Saint Mary’s, and even though the Bears lost these matches, the lessons learned were invaluable as the Bears were granted an opportunity to play against elite competition in playoff-like atmospheres.

The Bears have also worked through season-ending injuries to usual 15s starters in senior flanker Thomas Robles and sophomore fullback Troy Lockyear that inevitably led to a fair amount of roster shuffling in Cal’s starting lineups. In their absences, players such as locks Connor Sweet and Robert Paylor, flankers Nic Mirhashem and Thomas Spradling and winger-turned-fullback Jake Goena have played well.

These learning experiences against supreme competition coupled with the injuries to Robles and Lockyear have helped the Bears mature tremendously.

The team enters its first leg of the postseason featuring a number players that have either started or played extended minutes throughout the season. Additionally, Cal has strong leadership in flyhalf Russell Webb as well as centers Anthony Salaber and Patrick Barrientes — all fifth-years with a wealth of postseason experience. Though it remains unclear exactly who will start, the Bears should be refreshed and ready to compete following a first-round bye.

Cal has been working hard ahead of this weekend’s match with “April Drive,” the team’s early-morning fitness training, in addition to afternoon rugby practices.

“We’ve really been working on our attacking patterns,” Clark said. “We’re asking questions of the defense in all parts of the field.”

The Bears journey to repeat as national champions will be no easy feat, and the team will need a collective team effort in all facets of the game in order to inch one step closer to the ultimate goal.

Ryan Groves covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].