Cal's rugby team, ranked second in the country and eying another Varsity Cup Finals showdown with top-ranked BYU, has some business to take care of before it can deal with the Cougars.
Sixth-ranked Central Washington, a Division II school that has become a major factor in higher echelon college rugby, comes to Witter Field Saturday for a 1 p.m. match against the Bears in a Varsity Cup semifinal. The winner advances to the final against the winner of the other semi between heavily favored BYU and Arkansas State.
This is a rematch of the 2014 semifinal in which Cal handily defeated Central Washington, 58-14. But it might not be so easy this time, and head coach Jack Clark knows it.
"We came out on fire and I think we banged in several tries in the first quarter of the game," Clark recalled this week about the meeting two years ago. "We kind of had them on their heels, and forced them to play differently than they wanted to play. It was kind of dream start for us. We don't do it that often, but we did it on that occasion.
"It was a pretty comprehensive victory against what we thought was going to be a difficult day for us. I don't think we can count on that again."
One reason for Clark's trepidation is that the Bears senior fullback Harry Adolphus, who scored two tries that afternoon, was injured in Cal's quarterfinal victory over Army last weekend and is out of Saturday's game.
"Adolphus went head to head with a guy and has one of those fractures above his eye socket. He's unavailable," Clark said "It is a big loss for us. He's a good kicker and he's going to ring up some points that way. In a close game, those are going to be points that are harder to get.
"The magnifier on this is we're a little thin in the backs. We've had some injuries that have turned out to be season-ending injuries and I don't think we had a lot of depth to begin with. We are going to play a sophomore at fullback (Jake Goena) who hasn't played one game at fullback this year."
Goena, a 5-11, 206-pounder from San Diego, has had some injury issues of his own this year.
"He's a good player, a young guy who's been playing on the wing, "Clark said. "This is a different proposition for him. Because he's been injured quite a bit I'm not sure what his stamina is. He's a bit undercooked for a national semifinal so we'll see how it goes."
Central Washington, located in the town of Ellensburg has an enrollment of 10,000 and an athletic department a fraction of the size of Cal's. But the Wildcats are trying to ride rugby to athletic prominence. Largely due to its success against teams from larger colleges, it was elevated from a club sport to varsity status in 2013. With the lure of scholarships (something Cal does not offer in rugby) CWU consistently assembles a roster of quality international and domestic players.
"There are a lot of really good players out there that don't fit our academic profile and then there's a bunch of good players who can't afford to go to Cal," Clark said. "Well, we're not going to get them, and they (Central Washington) get both of those two segments. They are an NCAA Division II athletic department, but they give a lot of rugby scholarships and have built quite a team."
That team averages 57.1 points per game on offense and gives up 16.3 ppg. It has a rather modest 7-3 record this season, but all three losses were on the road and to elite competition. They ventured to Provo, Utah and minus several starters dropped a 58-27 decision to BYU.
Many of the Wildcat players were on the field for that loss to Cal two years ago, but Clark isn't sure Cal will recognize them. "They were just in a different point in their maturation," he said. "I think they are a much better team now. They have added to that team, and some of those players that were on that team are much better now."
And they present some problems. . "They are a pretty complete team," Clark said. "They've got a lot of gasoline. They've got some fast guys on the outside … . They can run the ball from almost anywhere on the field and keep it in hand. They don't kick the ball a lot. If they get behind you they're dangerous because they've got a lot of speed. At the same time, they are kind of monsters up front, big, strong older guys.
"They can take it to you with the forwards or they can ship it to the backs and run around you or through you. They are a very difficult opponent. Some of the bloggers out there believe they are a much better team than we are. I guess we will have to see."
Besides being big and strong, the Wildcats forwards are evidently a nasty bunch. Against Utah, three of them received yellow cards and had to sit out part of the first half. For the last seven minute of the opening period CWU played 12 against 15.
"I really commend our guys for playing fantastic defense against a quality opponent when we were down a few members in the first half,"CWU head coach Tony Pacheco said after the game. "It was a gutsy performance by the 12 who were on the field. We have to be better with our discipline, so we do not put ourselves in these types of situations."
Clark says the Bears won't get down and dirty with the Wildcats. "How they choose to play is between them and the referee," he said. "My responsibility is to our team and how we conduct ourselves. Our focus needs to be on keeping our discipline and not getting drawn into foul play."
- Prior to the Cal-CWU match, a young Cal side will take on the Northern California College All-Stars at 11 a.m. Gates open at 10 a.m.
- Admission is free to Cal students are children younger than 12. Tickets are $5 for those aged 12-17, seniors and military personnel, $10 for adults and $3 per person for groups of ten or more.
- Cal and CWU played a regular season match in 2011, with the Bears winning 44-14. There have been "several" other meetings over the years, but rugby record-keeping being what it is, details are incomplete.
- When the Bears conclude Varsity Cup competition, they will begin preparation to defend their title in the Rugby 7s tournament June 4-5.
- This is CWU's fourth straight appearance in the Varsity Cup semifinals. The Wildcats have yet to advance to the finals.