Looking back on 2018: Not a lost 15s season for Cal rugby

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The end of Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War” had everyone shocked and sad — it shouldn’t be forgotten, however, how good the movie is as a whole and how much excitement came with it.

Similarly, Cal rugby’s 15s season ended with a shocking twist — a blowout loss in the national title game against Life University, 60-5. Every season is aimed at coming away with a win in the final championship game, but the Bears’ result in their final match shouldn’t take away from the fighting efforts to get all the way to Santa Clara.

“We talked about being the best team that we can be and, you know, we talked about the kind of rugby we want to play and I think we mostly got there,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “I mean, we fell a little bit short of some of those kind of performance objectives, but you always do — if you want perfection, you don’t go into sports, right?”

Cal strode pass its weaker opponents for the better half of the season, recording some memorable victories such as the clutch win against the University of British Columbia at home, 39-36.

Later in the season, the Thunderbirds handed the Bears their first loss in the second leg of the World Cup series in Vancouver.

Cal did not appear as reassuring as the Cal faithful may have hoped for heading into the postseason, as Army posed a hard challenge. But the Bears’ winning tradition seemed to be enough.

“But we never probably reached our true potential — there is no way to sugarcoat that,” Clark said.

Au contraire to what the general population on campus believed, however, Cal was not the No. 1 team in the country. Ultimately, the Bears lost to the top-ranked St. Mary’s Gaels to end the regular season.

After an easy first round, Cal had a hard time against Navy in the quarterfinal. But the Bears perhaps played their best rugby in the semifinal against Lindenwood, who had upset St. Mary’s the previous week.

The final match was a completely different story, and even though Cal was never perfect throughout the season, it was never that bad either.

So, what’s the lesson to take and what should Cal faithful look forward to for next year?

This season, the Bears sported a relatively young squad after losing several key players such as then-fifth-years center Anthony Salaber and flyhalf Russell Webb to graduation. Cal will again say goodbye to several impactful starters like fifth-years prop Kevin Sullivan and No. 8 Thomas Robles, but the impact should be comparatively less.

“We lost more players last year, it was harder on us this year; we never once used the phrase ‘rebuilding year’ but we always knew that there is a potential young guys were going to play in big key games, possibly before they were ready,” Clark said.

The returning players will be the key as Clark spreads the minutes throughout the roster and allows for the opportunity of growth.

“At this age group, you should see pretty substantial leaps in abilities and awareness and skill sets and physical maturity and mental maturity; we should see pretty demonstrative advancements,” Clark said. “Maybe we did this year in a few guys and maybe we didn’t in others and next year, that will probably be the biggest calculus — how do the returning players return, as the same player or as a much better player.”

The coaching staff on the other hand will be preoccupied with addressing the turnover problem over the offseason. Throughout the season, Clark emphasized the issues of the high turnover count for the Bears, but the story was the same week in and week out just like a Brazilian soap opera.

“It’s not about not having any turnovers, you are always going to have a few if you are pushing the envelope a bit — we just had too many,” Clark said.

Whether it be talent breaks, bad decision-making or trying to do too much in their fast pace offense, the Bears slowed themselves in games, which kept them from finding their rhythm and playing the best rugby they could.

There was no apparent response to the problem. If there was, Cal has a more than qualified coaching staff to implement the solution. Turnovers will stay as the biggest “what if” dangling over the Bears as they prepare for a new season.

As with all college athletics, the new season is a blank page with a changing roster but the goal is the same for Cal: playing its best rugby.

Can Sarioz covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @can_sarioz