The Cal rugby team, ranked No. 2 in the country, resumes its annual pursuit of the national championship on Saturday at West Point when it takes on Army in the quarterfinals of the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup. This will be the Bears first game at the U.S., Military Academy.
The Bears opened Varsity Cup play last week defeating Texas by the obscene score of 138-0. Compared to Cal's ridiculous rout, Army (9-4) had to "struggle "to beat Oklahoma, 55-10, in its opening match. This week's encounter, which starts at noon (PDT) should be more competitive.
Veteran Cal coach Jack Clark in his 33rd year on the job has fielded his usual successful team. The Bears are 16-2 and undefeated against U.S., opposition, the two losses coming at the hands of University of British Columbia in their annual "World Cup" matchup. The Bears score an average of 57.6 points per game while allowing just 8.8. The team has had to deal with some injuries.
"We lost a really talented back line player Troy Lockyear to a torn ACL early in the year, and we lost a good flanker Ben Casey to a season ending injury to a shoulder," Clark said. He noted that several other players have been hurt and missed time. "The other guys who were on the shelf we are getting back," Clark said. "This is probably as healthy as we've been all year."
And as Texas found out, that makes for a formidable side.
"We're pretty well-balanced when we have all our guys on the field," Clark said. "The back line's pretty good, the forwards are pretty good, there's not any one unit kind of carrying the other, pretty well-balanced team. There is some maturity with the right amount of old heads in the upper classmen group and then there's young blood pushing through.
"I think we can do all the parts of the game. We have some kicking skills, we're a good ball-handling team, we run well, bit of physicality in the team. I don't think we're off the charts in any of those things. So I don't want to suggest we're all that and a bag of chips, but we're pretty good in all the important areas."
One of those area is experience, those "old heads" that Clark mentioned. Seniors scrumhalf Nick Boyer, who scored two tries (rugby touchdowns) against Texas and center Anthony Salaber provide leadership honed by many years on rugby fields.
"These are guys that played rugby in middle school, maybe even before middle school, so they come from rugby families," Clark said. "Both of their dads played for me here (and later coached). They're the next generation. They've been going to rugby games their whole lives. They both possess a good head for the game. They're real rugby players. They have as much experience as any kid anywhere in the world would have."
And they both compare the current Cal team favorably to other squads they've been a part of. "Every team has its strength. I have had some great teammates in the past Seamus Kelly, Danny Barrett, two national team players, very explosive, hard to beat them," Boyer said. "But I think collectively we're very close knit, very tight. My group has been together for five years. Good team cohesion. We feel strong this year, we're coming together.
"Guys are starting to play with their teammates more based on intuition. We have that knowledge of what's going to happen before it happens because we know our teammates so well. I think it's good, a big step forward and we're looking good this year."
Salaber agrees. "Right now I think we're in the right place," he said. "Last week was a good start off point for the playoffs and through the playoffs you've got to just get better and stay healthy. We've always got our eyes on BYU, but first we get Army and they're a really good "
BYU of course is the elephant on the rugby pitch. The Cougars have won the last four national championships, beating the Bears in the last three title games. In fact since 1991 either Cal (19) or BYU (five) have won all but one championship.
But the Cougars are in the other bracket and Cal has two more matches to win before they see them. And they can't look past Army, coached by Matt Sherman, a Clark disciple who was an All-American at Cal and a national champion in 2002. The Black Knights, ranked 11th in the country, own victories over Navy, Utah, Penn State and Dartmouth, all top 20 teams.
"We've seen them play, they're good," Clark said. "It's what you might expect, they've got some good bodies on the team, everyone looks like they were an all-state running back who just happened to take an appointment to the academy because Grandpa was a general or something. They look like what an academy team should look like."
Boyer and Salaber have seen the Cadets on film and are impressed. "I know they are a physical team, they're inspired and they're not going to let up," Boyer said. "They are going to push us hard. I saw them play against BYU, they scored a nice try. (Army did get hammered 71-10) We have one eye on BYU."
Nicklas Boyer, Scrumhalf
"From the looks of it they're a nice physical squad with good skills all around," Salaber said. "So we are looking forward to a good match. It's classic military ball, they just really physical, they are going to come out there and put out their best effort. They are really strong. … But we are well matched up across the board. We may have found a few weak spots, I'm not willing to tell. We have our eyes on some of their positions, we'll be looking to expose those during the game."
Clark has stayed in touch with Sherman and sees some of his influences on his former pupil. "We're close, and I want him to win almost every game," he said. "And I think Matt's his own man and he's got some of his own ideas, but there's no doubt you can see how they play is not too dissimilar to how we want to play."
Army's hottest player is flyhalf Andrew Borer, who scored a program record 30 points against Oklahoma. The 5-8, 180 pound senior from Alta Loma, Ca., scored three tries plus penalty kicks and conversions.
But Boyer and Salaber will present Army with the type of back-line player they are unaccustomed to seeing. Not only do they have the sport ingrained in them, they also are considerably bigger than the average Army back.
"Salaber is every bit of 6-foot-5 as a back," Clark said. "He's long and he's amazingly strong with those long levers of his. He's able to break some tackles because it's awkward for another back to try to take him down. Deceptively fast. He's got a bit of a swerve to him and he can find the space … Boyer (6-3, 210) is a big unit for a back as well. Both those guys are physical."
And they certainly overwhelmed Texas. Clark, for one, is a little distressed over how lopsided some of the first round Varsity Cup matches were. BYU beat ASU 113-8 and Arkansas State overwhelmed Clemson, 50-0.
"It's just in the first round where that happens, really, Clark said. "It's a one seed vs. a 16 or two vs. 15 in a 16-team tournament. Over the years, it's always been a bit lopsided. It's not what anyone wants, we all want competitive games and to put a good product on the field.
"But it happens and there's nothing you can really do in our game. You don't have the ability for massive substitutions, that's limited. You can't run the ball into the line three times and kick it to the other team. You've just got to play. Therefore you run the risk of looking like you're trying to run up the score, that you're taking great pleasure in something that you are not taking any pleasure in. Those kids from Texas were doing their absolute best. They were good kids. You can only feel for ‘em."
- If Cal wins Saturday the Bears would host the winner of the Central Washington-Utah game on April 23 in a semifinal. A game featuring the NorCal small college All-Stars will be held at Witter Field that day whether or not the Bears beat Army.
- The championship game is May 7 in Provo, Utah.
- Cal and Army have met twice in national championship games, the Bears winning both in 1991 and 1992. The teams last met on a non-neutral site in 2001, Cal beating the Cadets at Witter Field. This is Cal's first rugby visit to West Point.
- Anthony is one of two Salabers on the varsity roster. Older brother Nick is a fifth year senior who plays flanker.