It takes bravery to play against the University of British Columbia. The Thunderbirds are known as one of the best collegiate rugby teams in Canada, if not the best — and have gone 13-3 overall this season.
Over the weekend, The Bears threw themselves into a battle of giants but came up short on the scoreboard, 31-8 — completing the second half of their two-game series against the University of British Columbia with a totally different starting lineup. The aim was to get more experience for players that didn’t get to start in the last UBC game in Strawberry Canyon.
Indeed, it was a learning curve for these less experienced Bears, but they all seemed to appreciate the chance to play the Thunderbirds. In statements to Cal Bears, players used words like “big” and “special” to describe the opportunity to play Canada’s best.
Given their coming battles against better, more physical teams — most notably against Saint Mary’s on March 28 — the Bears want to get experience to future players who might start later this season, or even next year.
“It is an investment in their development as players. We are attempting to build depth in the 2020 team and we need to be a good team next year and in subsequent seasons,” said Cal head coach Jack Clark. “Therefore we need to spread playing minutes throughout the team.”
The new starting lineup was generally overpowered by the Thunderbirds. UBC scored a converted try in the second minute and scored a three-point penalty kick in the eighth minute. The Bears, however, responded with a penalty kick by senior Ken Kurihara and an unconverted try from sophomore Nick Bloom. The score at half was 17-8. But Bloom’s try and Kurihara’s kick were Cal’s last points of the game.
In the second half, the Thunderbirds were awarded a penalty try — which is awarded to a team if a try would have been scored if not for foul play by the defending team. UBC scored another try in the 69th minute, sealing the match.
The second-stringer’s rough performance, however, should not distress Cal fans. One must remember that the first-string Bears beat the Thunderbirds two weeks ago 36-21, a far greater margin than last year’s 24-22 win.
During that match, the Bears demonstrated two things, the first being that Cal can hang with heavyweight teams — Cal’s current starting lineup has the heart and skill to beat a good team. This may sound like a given for the dynastic Bear team, but before the UBC match Cal hadn’t really played a challenging opponent — giving the coaching staff some doubts about how they would perform against harder teams. The victory over the Thunderbirds seemed to quell these fears.
The second is that UBC is truly a gritty team; with only 14 men on the field after an ejection from the game, the Thunderbirds surged back and came dangerously close to reducing the Bears’ lead. It was a true heavyweight slugfest.
In this last game, it was clear that UBC had a chip on their shoulder. And as Cal prepares for games against Army, Navy and Saint Mary’s, the Bears will need to expect more feistiness and more physicality — the Bears will need to be brave again.
Jem Ruf covers men’s rugby. Contact him at [email protected].