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Robert Paylor was not only in the hearts and minds of each of Cal’s players, coaches and supporters over the weekend, his name was scrawled on the Golden Bears’ jerseys. On May 6th, Paylor was partially paralyzed in the Varsity Cup final. He’s been rehabilitating ever since and was recently moved to a hospital in Colorado which specializes in spinal cord injuries. His future is uncertain.
That traumatic experience has weighed heavily on everyone involved with Cal rugby, to the point where head coach Jack Clark was uncertain for a time whether or not his team should play in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship, defending the Pete Dawkins Trophy once more.
Ultimately, Clark and his team chose to play, and they again went undefeated, claiming a fifth-straight title.
“It’s new ground for us. We haven’t ever been in this situation, and it’s not clear what you’re supposed to do. I know our players were pretty emotionally zapped through the whole thing,” Clark told Rugby Today.
“We thought about it and decided we were just going to meet all of our responsibilities and compete and maybe that’s the right thing to do, and I hope it was.”
The team closed ranks while in Philadelphia, making themselves available for fewer media opportunities, staying out of the limelight. Clark said he was in contact with Paylor and his family throughout the competition. The coach seemed careful not to dwell on the topic of the injury, but with Paylor’s name on every man’s chest, he was never too far from everyone’s thoughts.
“We haven’t talked about it much. A little bit. We’ve had a lot of meetings on the topic, and we talked about it in Berkeley before we left,” said Clark. “We tried to hit the right demeanor, but at the same time, it’s not easy. I’m really impressed that they were able to just go play and do as well as they did.”
Just as impressive is the remarkable winning streak Cal has accumulated at the CRC. They haven’t lost a game since 2012. They’re 30-0 in the last five years. In the hallowed history of Cal rugby, there are some incredible statistics, streaks and records.
But this is 7s we’re talking about – the version of the game where Fiji can win Gold, Kenya can beat South Africa and the USA can defeat New Zealand. Games turn on a single mistake. Underdogs win. Often. For the Bears to string together five-consecutive titles and 30-straight wins is unimaginable.
Helping make it a reality the last five years were Patrick Barrientes and Anthony Salaber. They’ve been there every step of the way, winning all five CRCs. Russell Webb was there for four, missing out on one due to injury. Sunday marks the end of their collegiate careers, and they can say that, at least on college rugby’s biggest stage, they were perfect.
“All three of those guys have started in these games before. They’ve played finals rugby. They know how to follow the plan and build on what we’ve been doing,” said Clark. “I kind of expected those guys to show up today and they did. They’re really good ballers, and they’re good boys, too. The other boys follow them. They’re good leaders.”
Given the gravity of Paylor’s situation, Cal’s celebration of this fifth title will likely be muted. The team has been through a lot. Everyone is tired.
"I think the guys are emotionally spent," said Clark. "I can’t imagine an offseason would ever look this good to any of us. And it does. It’s time to recalibrate."