Bears Take on Arkansas State in Varsity Cup Final

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By David Bush, Staff Writer
Posted May 3, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017 BearInsider.com


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Cal rugger Russell Webb -Photo by ABFlyer Photo
The circumstances are familiar the opponent is not as the Cal rugby team tries to repeat as Varsity Cup national champions Saturday afternoon at Santa Clara.

The Bears (16-3) are making their fifth straight appearance in the VC title game, but the other four were against BYU. After losing the first three Cal finally exorcised their Cougar demons last year, winning the title, 40-29. Shortly thereafter BYU's 2015 championship was vacated because of an ineligible player. Miffed, the Provo, Utah, school, pulled out of VC competition.

But just because the foe isn't BYU, doesn't mean it will be a pushover. The Bears have to deal with Arkansas State (9-1-1), whose rugby program is only 18 years old (Cal's goes back more than a century), but has become a national power.

Located in Jonesboro in the Northeast corner of the state, the school, with an enrollment of 14,000 undergrads, has been able to lure players from around the world to what might not seem the most exotic location.

"The last ten years or so, they've pumped up their rugby program with a lot of energy, but also with a lot of international students, " Cal head coach Jack Clark said this week. "So we expect to see a dozen international students on the field. So they're skilled and experienced."

Their coach is Sean Potgieter, who hails from South Africa himself and was an All-American at the school in 2010. His roster includes six fellow South Africans, as well as Australians, Britons, Frenchmen and New Zealanders.

"They've got some Australians that are pretty good," Clark said. "One's a fly half (Zachary Young) that touches the ball in every phase of the game. And a big Polynesian kid from Australia (Sione Fanaiuiha) that is a center and is very good. They've got a couple of French guys that are skilled players and very good."

Arkansas State surprised a few observers by getting this far. Going in Clark figured Central Washington was the favorite to come out of the other bracket. But it was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Navy at Annapolis.

"I thought Central Washington would be one of the teams that would be in it until the very end," he said. "But it's not easy to go into Annapolis and beat Navy. They defend it like you're invading or something. ... That would have been a tough go for Central Washington."

But Navy had to travel to Arkansas State the following week and lost to the Red Wolves, 25-7, in one semifinal while Cal was knocking off Penn State, 35-14. And Clark sees some similarities between Penn State and Arkansas State.

"A little bit," he said. "They have a good set of forwards, a good set of backs. So they're pretty balanced in their approach and that makes them harder to play against. If a team is unbalanced and has one real strength, then you can put all your assets there and try to take it away from them. But if you do that against Arkansas State, they hurt you somewhere else."

Cal senior Kevin Sullivan agrees. "They are similar to Penn State in that they have some bruisers up front and they have some really good athletes who can run with the ball and are hard-hitters as well," he said. "They are probably a little bit bigger in the backline."

Sullivan, a prop by trade, has become a big (in every sense of the word) part of the Cal's scoring. He has nine trys, tied for second on the team, and scored a big one against Penn State that effectively put the game out of reach. When the Bears get close to the try line and can get Sullivan the ball, they do.

"Being the size that I am when we are close to the try line I am one of the options to score. It's always exciting to get the ball, it's a team effort, but I do enjoy scoring.

"It's usually when we are about five meters out and we are slowing it down and try to run it up the gut. That's where I will wind up getting the ball and try to barrel over a guy or two."

That might not sound like the most subtle of approaches, but Clark said Sullivan can be wily, too.

"He has very good instincts for the game. Kevin has been playing the game awhile and he's a bit of a baller. He is a guy who would be good in any game with a ball," he said. "And he kind of knows what's going to happen next. If you can read the game, if you have instincts for the game like he does, you can put yourself in positions where you have pretty dynamic runs.

"Plus he has the sweetest hands on the team, maybe. He can really pass the ball."

The one negative in the victory over Penn State was that the usually reliable Russell Webb missed all seven of his conversion kicks. That's 14 points that would have made the game a rout and might come in handy if the Bears are in a tight contest.

Unlike football, where the kicker is dead center with the goal posts when he attempts a PAT, rugby conversions can be from some awkward angles. The conversion must come from a direct line from where the try was scored. The kicker can back up as far as he wants, but if the try was scored five meters in from the sideline, that's where the conversion comes from.

"We talked about it," Clark said. "Russ is a good kicker and he kicked those balls well, it wasn't like he shanked seven conversions. He just missed seven conversions slightly. So we've been working with him. ...For him his follow through is important and if he doesn't get his hips right, there is a chance the ball will drift on him."

But conversions are not the only time Webb kicks the ball, and his other boots were important against Penn State. "Keep in mind, those kickoffs that brought rain down and we were able to get underneath," Clark said of two kickoffs that set the Bears up in good position. "And he kicked the ball well out of hand. We are pretty confident that we can count on him for a big kick when we need it."

Notes:

  • The game will be televised on a delayed basis on NBC Sports at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
  • Cal twice defeated Arkansas State last year in the 7-a-side Collegiate Rugby Championships. In pool play Cal won, 24-12, and the next day knocked off the Red Wolves in the quarterfinals, 24-14.
  • Their last meeting in 15-a-side was in the 2010 national semifinals (the Varsity Cup is only five years old) and Cal won, 83-37.
  • The schools have one common opponent, Clemson. Cal beat the Tigers April 15, 71-7, in a Varsity Cup quarterfinal. Arkansas State prevailed 76-24 on March 25.
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