If you didn’t like what you saw Saturday at the Witter Rugby Field, you don’t like rugby.
Cal rugby hosted the University of British Columbia for the first leg of the annual “World Cup” series between the two elite rugby programs that dates back to 1921. The Bears came out on top after a hard-fought 80 minutes from both sides to stay undefeated this season, while the Thunderbirds experienced their first road loss.
Cal (9-0, 1-0 Pac-12) did not give any tries to opponents until Saturday but hadn’t yet faced much of a challenge, and British Columbia was a big step up in terms of level of competition. The Thunderbirds are the reigning champions of the BC Premier rugby league and at the top of the standings in the senior men’s competition.
“We played awfully hard,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “It was a big step up in competition for us, and I thought the guys did the best they could to rise to that level, so I’m pleased to win.”
The game started with a 40-meter penalty kick by senior flyhalf/fullback Elliot Webb for the Bears to take an early 3-0 lead with four minutes in. The Thunderbirds replied with an unconverted try at the 13-minute mark to take their one and only lead in the game, 5-3.
A try by junior lock Sebastian Bader, who got his first start this season, and a conversion by Webb helped Cal control the tempo for the rest of the 20 minutes left in the first half.
Sophomore center Adam Roeske scored two tries in five minutes to extend the Bears’ lead as Cal went to halftime with a commanding score of 24-5. On the first try, Roeske slashed down, blasting right through the middle of the Thunderbirds’ defense. His dive to the try zone hyped up the crowd that filled the stands on the cloudy Saturday afternoon — a usual feat for rugby, but unusual for Cal recently.
“It was all about spatial recognition,” Roeske said. “We decided to cut it on inside, just because we knew that they’d focus on the 12 running hard, and when we did that, there was a gap inside, and we managed to capitalize on that gap.”
After 40 minutes of action, the Bears looked comfortable against a tired-looking British Columbia squad, but the Thunderbirds stepped up their game in the second half for a strong comeback effort.
Cal made multiple mistakes on offense, and British Columbia capitalized on them. With 12 minutes left in the game, Thunderbirds flanker Jacob Ikeda scored a try to cut the Bears’ lead to 9 points, but the conversion kick was just wide right, keeping it a two-try game.
“I think we couldn’t execute as we wanted — we gave a couple turnovers on their half that we should have scored points,” said junior flanker Thomas Spradling. “The crucial thing, though, was sticking to our defense, and that’s what brought the game.”
British Columbia did everything in its power to score as quickly as possible, but Cal displayed a great defensive performance. Losing the ball whenever the Bears stole it from the Thunderbirds kept British Columbia on the hunt for points till the final whistle, but the time ran out on the Thunderbirds.
When the scoreboard wound down to zero, Cal held a 24-15 lead, but British Columbia had the ball, trying to score anyway. Two minutes after the 80-minute game clock ended, the Thunderbirds finally found an opening and took advantage of the Bears’ defensive mistake as Canadian international center Ben Lasage decided the score with a converted try.
In the close games of the “World Cup” series matchups (Cal won last year’s game in Berkeley with a score of 39-36), the conversions prove crucial, as the tries themselves don’t come easy. Webb converted all three tries for the Bears, but the Thunderbirds’ comeback fell short, as they could only convert one of the four tries they scored in the game.
“We got to play to our potential, and I thought we did that in some ways in the first half — we got a little bit away from that in the last 40 minutes,” Clark said. “But everything stays on the rails — we got a solid team and today proved that we have a solid team. I don’t know how far we’ll go in the offseason, but we will be a factor.”
Cal will travel to Vancouver next weekend for the second game against British Columbia to start a three-game road trip.