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The University of California is back playing in a championship game, and playing against BYU, this weekend, in the Varsity Cup final. A year ago, Cal played in no 15s championship, as their decision to pull out of DI-A and no DI-AA at-large invitation put them squarely on the outside, looking in. It was a tough thing for the team, especially as they were on the outside when it came to their field, which was out of commission during a massive construction project at Cal.
That construction project was the Student-Athlete High Performance Center, a multi-multi-million-dollar facility that is designed to produce Olympic champions. The rugby team has a place there – their own locker room, access to the latest equipment, support and techniques; everything an athlete and coach could ever want. But in the end, what they really wanted was to get their field back, and play in a championship game again.
After his team beat a very solid Navy squad 74-6 last Saturday, Cal Head Coach Jack Clark relaxed a little bit – a little bit – at the knowledge that the Bears and the BYU Cougars would meet up once more.
But he also couldn’t help thinking about where his team had faltered. Three times Bears fumbled kickoffs into their 22, giving Navy three scrums from which they could have scored three early tries. Navy didn’t, because Cal defended them well, but it was still a concern.
Asked if the sun got in the players’ eyes, Clark shook his head.
“We’ve caught a lot of kickoffs at that time of day in the same part of the field,” he said. “We just weren’t very good at catching them. They were also good kickoffs – four-second jobs. They put us under pressure, but in dropping those kicks, we also put ourselves under pressure.”
In the end Cal got some big performances by veterans and newer players alike. Seamus Kelly scored four tries, and injected urgency into the squad when needed. He was active in the breakdown – just as props such as Tanner Mohr were active in open field – and brilliant on attack.
“All skills all players, right?” said Clark. “Seamus is just a really good
player. He’s really good over the ball, and he has a knack for knowing when
to make a play for the ball and when to take the space in the ruck. And in
other aspects of his game, if he’s not the best center in American college
rugby, I don’t know who is.”
Next to Kelly was sophomore Jesse Milne, a Piedmont HS product who looked anything but starstruck as he was thrust into a starting role after Jared Braun was hurt.
But that’s just the beginning of Cal’s strengths. Clark has decided to, essentially, put five loose forwards in his second and back row. Asked if he was concerned about handling the Navy scrum, Clark quickly shook his head. And it was obvious early on why he felt that way. First of all, his starting front row of Mohr, Grant Hyjer and JP Hurrell sometimes look like they could scrum an opposing eight all on their own. Second, Brendan Daly and Danny Barrett have bulked up enough to be very effective at lock.
“Danny can have moments on the field that no one else can have,” enthused Clark.
As a result, Cal was quick and strong to the breakdown. That, said Clark, required Navy to send more assets to each ruck if they wanted to win it. That meant, once Navy won the ball, they had fewer players to receive it and were normally outnumbered by the Cal defense.
Will all this be the same against BYU? Unlikely. The Cougars are bigger than Navy, more experienced, and boast a superb pack, as well.
“They’re good rugby players,” said Clark. “They offload the ball well. They’re big men who stay on their feet, and a lot of them have played a lot of rugby.”
And BYU is playing at their home field. You get the feeling that, as much as they’d like playing at Witter Field, the Cal players and coaches are relishing to idea that they might go into BYU’s back yard and wrest that national title away.
“It will be a very partisan crowd,” said Clark. “We might have 100 or so Cal faithful there. But it will be very, very partisan and I am sure it will have an effect. Our guys, though, will be ready, but we will need to play a cleaner game.”