Powerhouse Cal rugby embarks upon new season

Aslesha Kumar/File

Entering year 35, you’re not going to hear many betting against Cal rugby head coach Jack Clark. Look at the 29 national championships or the .880 winning percentage — anyone expecting anything but utter domination from the Bears is taking a losing proposition. While that remains the case, it’s fair to say that as Cal heads off for the 7s season, Clark has more work cut out for him in replacing two of the best players in recent program history.

Russell Webb and Anthony Salaber were a perfectly combined duo, their All-American talent matched by their leadership on the field. Webb was the cerebral operator in the backfield, virtuosically conducting the offense with his passes, while Salaber was the point of attack up front. Most importantly, they led Cal to two 15s titles over the past two years coming out of one of the few troublesome patches in Clark’s tenure.

Well, both are gone now — as are fellow All-Americans Drew Gaffney and Connor Sweet. There’s never been a true rebuilding season in Clark’s time as a Bear, but this year might be the closest Cal has come.

“There’s no replacing Webb,” Clark said. “Beyond his own abilities as a player, he was a fantastic leader, especially around the 7s game. … It leaves a void in our team — we don’t have another Webb this year. This is going to be about other players and developing them. We’ll be different without (Webb), but there’s good talent on this team, I think we can still be good.”

The fall season will begin this weekend with the West Coast Collegiate 7s tournament in San Luis Obispo, and the Bears are unlikely to be challenged. In fact, they’ll be using a split team system to ensure they see as many players get on the field as possible. When you’re good enough to not have to even sweat early-season tournaments, these are the kinds of luxuries you’ll find.

“Beyond just getting our patterns and systems installed, we want to take a look at a lot of different players,” Clark said. “If we come out of this first tournament knowing a little more about a lot of our players, that would be a plus. Giving them competition minutes would be a real plus.”

Cal brings in a group of 15 freshmen this year, and while the pattern of underclassmen playing key roles has been rare over the course of Clark’s tenure, it’s become somewhat more common recently. Last year, then-freshmen Sam Cusano was a regular starter, and his speed helped the Bears’ offense immeasurably.

The young players’ integration into the offense will be helped by the fact that 12 of them have experience in the Cal fieldhouse through Cal rugby summer camps.

“I think they know what they’re getting into, the ethos of Cal rugby,” Clark said. “I think it’s valuable for them to compete in camp for that reason. It also helps the talent identification process. Recruiting is not a perfect science, and the more you get a chance to be around players, it improves your strike rate.”

It’s unlikely that the Bears offense will be quite as dynamic as in years past, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they started a little slowly and didn’t look like the world-beaters of past. But if 35 years of history are any indication, the smart money is on Cal getting there by the time it matters.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewwild17.