Early in the first half, the Bears and the Thunderbirds faced off in a scrum. An intense hush fell over the crowd. In what seemed like an ancient ceremonial dance, the players grabbed their teammates’ shoulders, gripped jerseys and locked with the opposing team like a human spider.
When the referee indicated, the teams pushed and heaved with all their might, trying to force the opponent off the ball. For a moment, the Bears made some headway, but the physical University of British Columbia side grinded away. The Bears lost the scrum. Some troubled “oohs” echoed from the stands.
For any other game, that lost scrum would have indicated that — at the very least — it was going to be a dangerously close match. But Cal didn’t back down. The Bears matched UBC’s physicality and tenaciously chipped at the UBC defense, ultimately winning 36-21. If anything, that lost scrum seemed to light a fire in the Bears’ bellies.
This past Saturday in Strawberry Canyon, there was a palpable sense of ceremony and tradition. Cal and UBC have been facing off annually for 99 years, and as the two teams took the field and their national anthems blared, one could feel an electric intensity on the field.
Not to mention, it was also homecoming weekend, and the select national championship teams from the ’80s, ’90s and 2000s were honored during halftime. Alumni were milling about, cracking jokes and exchanging memories.
On the field, however, the mood wasn’t so lighthearted.
Cal scored the first try of the match in the 10th minute, brutally hammering down the field close to the try line. In other matches, the Bears would have easily been able to punch through and score, but not against UBC. The T-Birds made a last stand close to the try line, but after more than eight phases, Keanu Andrade grinded into the end zone.
The T-Birds made it clear that Cal needed to work for the win. In the 14th minute, UBC responded by busting through the Cal defense and scoring a try, but that was the last retort from the T-Birds in the first half. Over the next 30 minutes, the Bears hammered away at their Canadian rivals.
In the 20th minute, a bad play for the Bears led to a dropped pass. But Andrade picked the ball up, faked and pivoted up the field, zooming through the UBC defense for another try. The crowd was ecstatic. Freshman Max Schumacher was then able to convert the try with a well-executed kick from a hard angle.
But the game wasn’t all beautiful, explosive runs. Late in the first half, UBC was penalized for a high tackle. As the Bears widened their lead, tensions escalated on the field.
As the final seconds of the first half melted away, Schumacher received the ball, and, seeing a hole in the UBC defense, faked one way, kicked his legs up and exploded down the field. The young rugger dodged some T-Bird tackles and placed the ball neatly in the try zone — the crowd roared. The game was far from over though, as UBC returned with a vengeance in the second half.
The Bears started off the second half with another intense showdown near the Thunderbird try line. UBC ferociously fought against the attack, but Cal diligently chipped away, trying to find a hole in the defense. After using upward of eight attempts yet again, the Bears pounded through: another try to begin the second half.
At this point, emotions began to spiral out of control. After an aggressive UBC tackle, a Bear and a T-Bird got into a fight — words were said, punches thrown, jerseys pulled. A UBC offender was given a red card, and the visitors played the rest of the match with only 14 men.
But ironically, with only 14 players, the T-Birds began to threaten the Bears’ lead as the second half came to an end. The big UBC side hammered away at Cal, grinding down the field. In the 60th and 64th minutes, the T-Birds scored, reducing the lead to 10 points and causing tangible unease in the Cal stands.
But the Bears finished with a bang. With only four minutes left, the blue and gold pounded through again; senior lock Sebastian Bader scored the last try of the match.
“Our effort level was very high. We put a lot into the match both mentally and physically,” said head coach Jack Clark. “The boys had a determination, a resolve to achieve victory.”
The Bears, imperfect but determined, thanked their fans and celebrated the win. Cal will play the T-Birds again in several weeks, this time on their home turf in Canada. The history of the rivalry — and the intensity of Saturday’s match — makes a charged showdown in Vancouver a near certainty. There will be plenty more brutal scrums to come.
Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].