Not all games are created equal. A quarterfinal fixture against local rugby rival St .Mary’s certainly falls into this category of thrilling single-elimination games, where every decision has a crucial impact on the scoreboard.
After handing a neat 82-15 defeat to the Cal Poly Mustangs last Saturday at Witter Rugby Field, the blue and gold will be eager to avenge their narrow regular-season loss to St. Mary’s and further away in time, their elimination in the 2022 D1A National Collegiate Championship playoffs against these same Gaels.
The first round of the playoffs gave Cal’s rugby program a much-needed boost of confidence before the huge challenge awaiting it in Moraga, California. On Saturday, the Bears finally regained their winning habits that vanished in March, with defeats conceded to Navy, St. Mary’s and BYU — all nationally ranked and contenders for the championship title.
By crossing the whitewash 14 times, including a brace of tries by Rand Santos and Max Schumacher, Cal successfully punched back and developed stellar offensive patterns against a porous defense from sixth-seed Cal Poly.
Cal rugby head coach Jack Clark, via email, said the ability to score many points against most teams was a positive takeaway against the Mustangs.
Yet, if Cal scores double — sometimes triple — digits, its defensive containment of its opponents has recently deteriorated against top-seeded teams. A month ago, the Bears committed too many defensive mistakes and let the Gaels have the final say on the scoreboard.
“What hurt us most were untimely penalties and defensive lapses,” Clark said. “We were up by 8 points with 60 minutes played and 20 minutes to go, when we got careless with penalties, compounded by a couple of bewildering defensive lapses.”
Cal’s top-performing players, including Rudy Scholz award nominee Schumacher, will have a determining role in clinching a West Region semifinal berth. The team will need to avoid offensive errors that cost them defeats at Navy and against St. Mary’s and lock their defense down in order to escape disillusionment at the final whistle.
The seasoned team that handled business to Cal Poly in Strawberry Canyon should, not surprisingly, have great chances to be aligned again at St. Mary’s Stadium on Saturday. Experienced players and newcomers, which have successfully blended throughout the Spring XVs season, will once again have the tough mission to level up their game as they hold an outsider position against their Bay Area opponents.
St. Mary’s finished its regular season last week in good fashion with a 38-25 win at Santa Barbara. The program advances to the quarterfinals as the second seed, hoping to win the championship after last year’s painful defeat against Army.
The St. Mary’s rugby program unleashed its offensive potential in Strawberry Canyon. The players ran riot twice in Cal’s endzone in the first 15 minutes and closed the game with two tries to edge Clark’s players by four points.
“Our focus needs to keep unforced errors to a minimum, stay on the right side of the referee and play our best defense,” Clark said.
There is no better game than a quarterfinal to take down your best enemies and open the way to the championship. Either Cal loses and concludes a promising season — yet spoiled by disappointing losses to top nationally ranked teams — or wins it away and sends a strong message to the other programs still engaged in postseason contests.
The game will start at 1 p.m. at St. Mary’s Stadium in Moraga. More information for the televised broadcast is yet to be determined.