Growing up fast: Young rugby squad gears up for 7s Tournament

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Imagine a verdant, pastoral campus with a Rodin sculpture garden and content students who know not the tribulations of grade deflation or random water main breaks in residence halls. The general feeling is serene — one might even say “museum-esque.”

What campus is this? That’s right folks — the Farm, the Tree Plot, Stanford. And as the Cal rugby team prepares to descend on this scene this weekend in the Pac-12 Rugby Championship, one is reminded of an old cartoon where a Visigoth explains himself:  “We wanted literature, music, art … we were starved for these things. We didn’t sack Rome, really, we were just looking for poems. I’m sorry if we broke some stuff…. ”

Cal’s squad hopes to wreak some havoc against quality programs including UCLA and Arizona, all while speeding up the learning process of its young squad and growing out of inexperienced mistakes.

Two weekends ago, the Bears — consisting of mostly underclassmen because of several injuries to veterans — placed third in the Treasure Island-hosted stage of the West Coast 7s tournament. Cal dominated its early games, beating Cal Poly San Luis Obispo 43-0 and Utah 32-5, but its tournament run came to an end against Arizona in a 21-10 semifinal loss. The Bears made critical errors against the Wildcats, and in the 14-minute flurry of sevens rugby, critical errors have huge consequences.

“The count was six unforced errors and three penalties,” said head coach Jack Clark. “So, in a 14-minute game, if you’re gonna give them the ball nine times it’s just not possible to win that game properly. Not if they are two equal-ish teams.”

Last year in the same tournament, the Bears trounced Arizona 33-5 in the finals, winning the Pac 7s tournament and ending their fall 2018 sevens season with a perfect 17-0 record. But this season is different. Cal’s standout wing Sam Cusano suffered a serious leg injury in October against UCLA and several other key upperclassmen are sidelined. Moreover, the team experienced a rough start to their fall campaign, including a surprise loss to Cal Poly in its stage of the West Coast 7s Tournament.

Thus, the team has relied heavily on underclassmen to bolster their lineup. During the Treasure Island stage of the West Coast 7s Tournament, freshman Max Clark and sophomore Jake Broekhuizen saw playing time in all six games.

Cal is focusing mainly on two teams for their upcoming tournament at Stanford: Arizona and UCLA. The Bruins have been very strong this sevens season; UCLA beat Arizona to win the Treasure Island-hosted tournament two weekends ago, and the Bruins beat Cal earlier this fall at Cal Poly.

Arizona has also had strong performances in various preseason tournaments, including a second-place finish at Treasure Island. It is almost guaranteed that the Bears will face these two teams, either in pool play Saturday, or the championship rounds Sunday.

With a young squad, the Bears are honing in on the basics in preparation for what will surely be tough battles at Stanford. The stakes will be high and the learning curve will be steep, especially for a young squad in rugby sevens, where speed and precision are crucial.

“We want them to be uber-competitive and at the same time kind of steely-eyed and calm. There are some competition traits that are hard for young teams to demonstrate,” Coach Clark said. “It’s easier to demonstrate those qualities as a predominantly upperclassman team, but we are just not there right now. So we have to fast-track all of that.”

In the unforgiving game of sevens rugby, this weekend will surely be a great test for the young Bears. And, more specifically, it may answer the question, “How fast have they grown up?”

Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].