The Cal rugby team will try to get one step closer to a successful defense of its Varsity Cup Championship Saturday at Witter Field when it takes on Penn State in a semifinal match at 1 p.m.
Should the Bears win they would advance to their fifth straight Varsity Cup Final, this time against the winner of the Arkansas State-Navy contest.
The Cal-PSU rugby match begins about the time that the annual Spring Football Game is ending, giving those who want to make the short trek up the hill from Memorial Stadium a chance to see two events for the price of one parking place, a bargain in Berkeley these days. For those who find the climb up Strawberry Canyon a too strenuous, the school will provide shuttles via golf carts for all who want them.
The Bears, who dispatched Clemson, 71-7, in the quarterfinal match last Saturday, will probably be favored over the Nittany Lions (20-1), although the score figures to be closer.
"They are a pretty mature team," Cal head coach Jack Clark said. "More than half the team is seniors. That helps them. They've got some skills. they can play rugby, especially in the midfield. Nine, Ten, 12, 13, they can all pass and catch, they can instinctively play the game.
"They've got some big old bruisers, of course. You expect that. It's impressive that they can play the game and that's what really asks some questions of you."
The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 34-10 lead in their quarterfinal against Army, but had to withstand a rally by the Cadets, who cut the lead to 39-34 with ten minutes left. Penn State prevailed 47-34.
Head coach James Willcocks singled out centers Joe Kelly, who had two tries in the first half, and Selby Niumataiwalu, a first team selection on the Rugby East team. Junior lock Ryan McNulty had three tries for PSU.
Cal beat Penn State in their last meeting, 33-5, at the Rugby Collegiate 7s in Philadelphia. Their last meeting in 15-a-side was in March, 2013 in Berkeley. The Bears crushed PSU, 100-0, scoring 15 tries. This one figures to be a little closer.
Clark said this was not a "typical" Penn State team, in that the Nittany Lions use a little more finesse than their predecessors.
"They are a little more adventurous with the ball because they can do it," Clark said. "They have had teams that have been more conservative, more confrontational. These guys are plenty confrontational, but they really do spread the ball around.
"They score a lot of points, they are averaging almost 60 (59.8) points a game. You're not going to shut 'em out. I think what it means to us is that we're going to obviously play good defense, but we can't give 'em too many possessions, because they're efficient."
Clark expressed the same concern about allowing multiple possessions a week ago, but the final score indicates that wasn't much of an issue. Still Clark felt that Clemson was tougher than 71-7.
"Our physicality I think was good enough. They didn't get behind us at all," he said. "A lot of the stuff they did against Dartmouth, just pumping their legs and 'Meters After Contact' didn't transpire against us. We had a good defensive line in front of them most of the day, so it was hard for them. Our forwards did a good job. We basically won all of our possessions and we won several of theirs.
"There were times when it looked like a pretty even tussle, and then we would bang in three or four tries in a row. So the score really flatters us a little bit. It was probably a better game than that."
Win or lose this will be the last home game for a talented group of Cal seniors. Among the most notable is center Russell Webb, the team captain. Clark said Webb "plays his position as well as anyone in the game," but that his contributions have gone beyond the many points he has scored.
"He's a long-time starter, he got starts as a freshman. He's had very few bad games. He's played well, not just OK but well in about all his appearances," Clark said.
"He has a very good way about him as captain. He's demanding of the boys in some instances, really uncompromising with them in some areas. At the same time, he's one of the guys, he's the first to have a smile and a laugh. He's able to keep the right demeanor through a lot of different situations. We only play 90 minutes a week. The rest of the time you can't be walking around like you've got something to prove. You've got to train hard and give encouragement to others.
"He's the first guy to be encouraging and compliment other players. He's something of an aficionado of good rugby and he appreciates it. And the other boys they want his appreciation. They want Russ to believe they're giving their all and they're playing well."
Webb, who was born in Hong Kong and went to high school at Tonbridge School in Kent, England, admits he will feel some emotion taking the field at Witter for the last time. He had his eye on Berkeley from afar and came to a Cal rugby camp while in prep school. Clark quickly realized Webb had potential and recruited him on the spot, and now it's almost over.
"It is always in the back of your mind, this is my final year and it's coming to an end," said the 5-8, 171-pounder whose British accent has not been entirely erased by five years in Berkeley. "The last month or two I know I have thought about it. It flies by it really does.
"It is going to be a very important game, but there is going to be a moment, whether it's right before the game, during the anthem, or after the whistle, it's going to sink in."
Webb was one of the mainstays of last year's Cal team, which was finally able to unseat BYU as champs of the Varsity Cup as well going on to win the national title in seven-a-side.
"Last year was kind of surreal, kind of crazy to win the double. There is no reason we can't do it again this year," he said. "That's the goal, that's aways been the goal.This year's team is a lot younger, but physically we've got guys that don't want to take any steps back."
He knows the Nittany Lions are likely to be more of a challenge than Clemson.
"They're a good side, I've seen the results they did well in the tour of Scotland (3-0)," he said. "A few guys I've watched play show they do have the qualities. It is going to be one of the harder games we play this season. We definitely are not going to underestimate them.
"At the same time we are a confident side ourselves, we're confident that we have what it takes to get the job done."
*Gates open at Witter Field at noon. Admission is free to Cal students, active military personnel and children under 10. Adult tickets are $10, senior and youth (10-19) are $5 and $3 for groups of 10 or more with advance online purchase.
*Cal hopes to have back center Patrick Barrientes, who has been out with an injury.
*The Varsity Cup Final is May 6 at Santa Clara's Stevens Stadium (formerly Buck Shaw Stadium).