The Cal ruggers, who narrowly missed a national championship earlier this month, go for another this weekend. The Bears are the two-time defending champs in the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championships (CRC) outside Philadelphia.
This event, with a field of 20 teams, is the national seven-a-side championships. This version of rugby obviously has fewer players (seven vs. 15) than the more conventional game and is much shorter. Each half is seven minutes long, as opposed to the usual 45. Because players can take the field for multiple games in a day, this is the version that will be used when rugby returns to the Olympics next year.
Roster size and game length are the two major differences, everything else is pretty much the same. The field is the same size, scoring is done the same way, there are still scrums and lineouts. And while not a game for pantywaists by any stretch, the game does involved more finesse and less brute strength than the 15s.
“It is probably a little bit less confrontational,” Cal head coach Jack Clark said of sevens. “There’s fifteen guys on the same size field in normal rugby, and in order to create space you’ve got to be vertical, got to be confrontational in order to reduce the width of the defense. You’ve got to try to bring ‘em to where the ball is, and that’s what creates the space. In the 7s the space is already there. The idea is not to run into anyone, move the ball around and try to manipulate the defense more with ball movement. There are some differences along those lines. …There is aslo a real premium on playing mistake free as best you can. The game is really short, so one mistake can really hurt you.”
The Bears have been able to minimize mistakes and avoid “confrontations.” They went 6-0 in the CRC each of the last two years in claiming the titles. And in the recent fall 7s season they kept up the success. They went 15-1 and won two big events: the Battle of the Bay and the PAC 7s Rugby Conference Championship. In the spring The Bears went on to a 17-2 record i the 15s, coming within three points of BYU in the Varsity Cup (national championship) final. Now it’s back to the 7s.
“This fall we played our best sevens to date,” Clark said. “That said, making he conversion from 15s to 7s in only a couple of weeks is a real challenge. We’ve met that challenge previously and will need to do it again.”
The Bears start meeting the challenge Saturday morning at 9 a.m. EDT (6 a.m. PDT) against Boston College. The Eagles went 8-4 in their 7s season, with two of the losses by a combined total of five points. At 11:20 a.m. EDT (8:20 a.m. PDT) Cal takes on Notre Dame, which swept the Atlantic Coast 7s series including a win over Virginia Teach. Those same Hokies, who won the overall Atlantic Coast Championship, are Cal’s final Saturday opponent. That match begins at 3 p.m. EDT (noon PDT) and will be nationally televised by NBC.
This will be the first meeting between Cal and Boston College. The Bears are 2-0 against Notre Dame in 7s and beat Virginia Tech 45-7 in CRC pool play two years ago.
On Sunday the five pool winners and three highest finishing runners-up will be re-seeded for quarterfinal, semifinal knockout rounds. The championship is set for 5:25 pm ET, (2:25 PT) on Sunday, and it, too, will be nationally televised.
Among the other entrants are the two teams Cal beat in the championship games, 2013 runner-up Life University, 2014 runner-up Kutztown; West Coast Rivals UCLA and Arizona; Navy and Air Force, both ranked in the top 20 and Dartmouth, which like Cal is a two-time CRC champ.
The Bears are generally regarded as the pre-tourney favorites despite the loss of flyhalf Russell Webb, who sustained a foot injury in the loss to BYU. “It’s a big loss, he’s an important piece of our team, sevens especially,” Clark said. “But we’re not the only team that going to be missing a guy. You’ve just got to shake it off.’’
One Bear who will make the loss of Webb a little less painful is senior fullback Jack Anderson who is No. 2 in Cal 7s history in appearances, 59, tries, 35, and conversions, 23.
“He’s a polished guy he can win the ball on the line out, he’s the primary kicker, a good player,” Clark said. “He’s an important member of our team.”
Another Bear stalwart is senior wing Andrew Battaglia, making his fourth straight CRC appearance. He gives the Bears some versatility. “He’s kind of a stocky (5-9, 191) wing,” Clark said. “He can play hooker in 7s.”
And that really helps, given the makeup of the roster. “Of the 12 men we brought on our roster all but two of them are backs,” Clark said. “You basically bring your backs, the fastest most evasive backs you have. You also bring some forwards but those forwards have to be able to pass and catch. Their ball skills have to be good. It takes a lot of bigger guys out of consideration.”
Cal is 25-3 all-time at the CRC with a runner-up finish in 2010, a quarterfinal loss in 2011 and a third-place in 2012. Then came the two titles, with a third a distinct possibility.
‘I think the Russell Webb situation aside, we’re as competitive as we’ve ever been,” Clark said. “ We’re really excited for the opportunity. It’s a pretty big stage, network television, nice stadium. It will be pretty full. It’s a great stage for the guys to compete.”