Ruggers Open Defense of Varsity Cup


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By David Bush, Staff Writer
Posted Apr 13, 2017
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2017

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Cal rugger Keanu Andrade
The Cal rugby team, as usual one of the country's elite clubs, begins Varsity Cup play Saturday, this time as defending champions.
The Bears (14-3) drew a first-round bye in the Cup, in its fifth year and the de facto national championship, and travel to Clemson to take on the Tigers in a quarterfinal. Should Cal advance as expected, it will host a semifinal match April 22 at Witter Rugby Field against either Army or Penn State. The Varsity Cup Final is scheduled for May 6 at the University of Santa Clara.

Clemson, which defeated Dartmouth in a first-round match last weekend, plays a style that is the rugby equivalent of 'smash-mouth football.'

"They are pretty physical. They have great size, and the thing I am most impressed with is they can all penetrate," Cal coach Jack Clark said. "They have a bunch of guys who give you a little shimmy than use some power on you. They pump their legs. They seem to win all the contact moments. In football, they call it 'Yards After Contact.' In rugby, maybe it 'Meters After Contact.'

"We can't get them on the ground after they carry us five meters, we've got to get 'em on the ground when we make contact. I think it will be harder for them then. But theirs is a style of rugby where you just tuck the ball. You don't pass it. There's no risk of a bad pass or a turnover. You just run. And sooner or later somebody falls off a tackle and you get a try (rugby touchdown).

Last year with a senior heavy team, the Bears ended BYU's stranglehold on the Varsity Cup with a 40-29 victory in the championship game. The Cougars had won the title every year since the Cup began in 2013, although their 2015 title was vacated.

This year's Cal team is a little different from its immediate predecessor, in that its strength is with its backs and not the front line.

"We have a lot of experience in the backs," said senior center Anthony Salaber. "Three fifth-year seniors in the centers alone, guys who've proven themselves in years past. Cal has always been such a forward dominant team, it's an interesting dynamic.

Clark agreed. "I think we're similar in the backs, in the fact we have three returning starters in the midfield. We have a chance to be better," he said comparing this year's team with last.

The backs, led by Salaber at inside center, Russell Webb at flyhalf and Patrick Barrientes at outside center have been efficient despite losing fullback Troy Lockyear early in the year to an ACL and wing Zachary Tavenner to a shoulder.

"Those are two potential starters," Clark said. "But I still think we can be a nudge better (than last year)."

The major loss in the backfield was scrum half Nicklas Boyer, an All-American as a fifth year senior. However the Bears have found a quality replacement. "The guy who touches the ball every play is the scrum half," Clark said. "And we have gone from a senior to a freshman. The freshman, Keneau Andrade is pretty good.

"He was a football player at De La Salle (High). A two-time state champion open division football player.

"He is special. He is going to be really good. He was a linebacker, led the team in tackles. He is a special guy, and he's played some rugby. He played rugby in high school. He will better as a sophomore and better than that the next year.

He will be crucial to seeing that the Bears keep the ball away from Clemson's brutes as much as possible. We've got to limit their time of possession," Clark said. "You don't have to tackle them if they don't have the ball. If we can limit their attacking opportunities, it will help us. If you have to play a lot of defense it just wears you out. It's in any game, if you are on the field a lot on defense, it's easier for the offense after awhile. If they are allowed to hang onto the ball and rumble up the field it's going to be a long day."

The Bears front-line is considerably shorter on experience than the backs.

"We are not as good," said Clark. "We lost the entire front row, that is the equivalent of the line. Those guys were seniors, they were mature, they were strong. They had great leadership. Then the locks, the props, kind of the engine room of the team, they left."

Of course, the Bears are seldom short of talent. "We have filled in with some younger guys, we are starting freshmen in place of seniors in three positions," Clark said. They are going to be good players, but it will take them awhile to get there. So we're not as good as we were a year ago. But we have the potential to be pretty good, if not as good. We've shown glimpses of it, but we haven't done it consistently."

Having gotten a taste of winning it all, the Cal players are not content with just one title. "Last year was such a historic year it's hard to live up to the standards," Salaber said. "But we have a group of guys that are really determined. Living in a high-performance mind-set that we do, you always want to go for the number one spot. It's something we've reflected on this year. The last couple of weeks we've reflected why do we play this game. We want to be the best players we can be and want to be the best team we can be."

In all four of the previous Varsity Cups, and in six of the seven national title games that preceded it, Cal met BYU in the finals. That will not happen this year. The Varsity Cup vacated BYU's 2015 championship because it determined the Cougars used an ineligible player. In what seems a childish fit of pique the Cougars then pulled out of the Cup competition entirely.

The school has said little about its reasoning, or the entire eligibility question as a whole, but the move smacks of the philosophy, "If I can't cheat, then I'm not going to play."

Clark, although supportive of the Cups decision, is sorry to see the Cougars leave.

They're a good team still. I'm disappointed that they're not there," Clark said. You want to play the best."


The last time Cal and Clemson met in rugby was 2003. The Bears edged the Tigers, 76-6.

With BYU a non-participant the biggest obstacle to the Bears' repeating appears to be Central Washington, which is in the other bracket. The Bears beat the Wildcats 14-13 in a tense battle in last year's cup semis.
Including last year's Varsity Cup Cal has won 23 national titles under Clark in rugby 15s, and four in 7s.

Should the Bears advance the semifinal will start at 1 p.m. at Witter Field April 22, about the same time the football team will be wrapping up its spring scrimmage. That makes an easy walk to a football-rugby doubleheader.
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