BERKELEY - California rugby embarks on the spring 2014 season ready to test itself in a blend of time-honored rivalries with local, conference and postseason competitions. The schedule culminates with the Varsity Cup National Championships for 15s before the Collegiate Rugby 7s Championship challenges Cal to finish the year successfully in the Olympic 7s code of the game.
The Golden Bears enter the new year in the customary position of having to fill a vacuum created by departed talent and will do so with some exciting but largely unproven players. Coming off their conference 7s championship in the fall, the Bears need to recalibrate across their roster, with head coach Jack Clark balancing lineups in 20 or more fixtures, including the University of British Columbia twice in the “World Cup” series, fellow Pac-12 member universities in the PAC Rugby Conference, Dartmouth College in a rare visit to Strawberry Canyon by the Ivy Rugby power and a 12-team Varsity Cup postseason.
“Our team is working hard and I believe we have the makings of a solid outfit,” said Clark. “We’re inexperienced at a few positions, but that’s normal. Overall, I think we have the player leadership and talent to make a run at the top teams. It’s difficult to equal teams like BYU on talent but we’re not too far off.”
The personnel the Bears put forward will feature new faces, starting in the front row. Graduated is prop J.P. Hurrell, the four-year Cal football letterman who finished his collegiate career with an impressive transition from the gridiron to the rugby pitch. Gone too is Lyall Davenport, who backed up Hurrell, and hooker Grant Hyjer. The second row will miss All-American Brendan Daly and the back row will be without Ahmed Chehade and four-time All-American Danny Barrett.
A 2013 All-America honorable mention, Tanner Mohr figures to return as the anchor of the front row at loosehead prop. The experience level quickly dips after Mohr, with prop options including juniors Chris Fry and Scott Walsh, and sophomore George Vrame.
The hooker position, always vital to winning and spoiling scrums, and throwing clean lineouts, is without an heir apparent, although flanker Jack O’Beirne saw some spot duty there in 2013. One possible major change would be moving 2013 key reserve backrower Michael Bush to the hooker position.
“Mike is strong and has the physical wherewithal to be excellent,” said coach Clark. “The skills aspect of the position change would be more problematic and we will need to be patient early in the season.”
Locks Alex Bowman and Patrick Coleman, both seniors, are the most experienced returners to the second row. Senior Zack Purdy is also back for the spring season after spending the fall of 2013 at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, where he studied acting and performed in a conservatory-based, Shakespearean program.
Sophomore James Kondrat will strive to break into the upper echelons of the depth chart, as will freshmen Tomas Zerbino from Uruguay and Olivier Damas, who is enrolled for the spring semester after completing his high-school studies at Newington College in Australia.
The backs offer a more familiar look for Bears entering 2014, with the entire backlines returned from both the lineup that took BYU to the death in the Varsity Cup National Championship and the one that brought home the program’s first national 7s title from the CRC.
Junior scrumhalf Nicklas Boyer will be rejoined by senior 7s All-American Paul Bosco, who is on course to return to action having recovered from injury with impressive physical gains. An additional change of pace would be junior Lucas Dunne, who adds another speedy dimension when he slots into No. 9 from his primary position on the wing.
Options at flyhalf begin with the incumbent, sophomore Russell Webb, who had a terrific first season in 2012-13. Bosco has also featured prominently at flyhalf in the past, while sophomore Harry Adolphus, coming off his excellent fall 7s campaign, may challenge for time at flyhalf as well as center, wing or fullback.
The inside and outside center positions comprise Cal’s power zone entering the spring season. Back for an unprecedented third year as Cal’s captain is senior Seamus Kelly, who led the Bears through the Varsity Cup and CRC, and made his first U.S. international appearance in May before starting for the U.S. National Team during the summer and fall, earning seven caps before Thanksgiving.
One interesting addition to the squad is freshman Edward Tandy, a scholarship linebacker on the Cal football team with significant high-school rugby experience in the backs division. “I’m not sure where Ed will most help us,” coach Clark said. “I have no doubt he can play inside center, but I’m also intrigued by his speed and athleticism adding to our back row.”
The spring season launches Jan. 18-19 at UCLA, where the Bruins host the All-UC Tournament featuring a field of teams from University of California campuses. Last year at this event, Cal came away with its eighth straight Dennis Storer trophy, named in honor of the former UCLA coach and first coach of the U.S. National Team, with a four-win weekend that saw 54 Bears in action and was capped by a 29-7 victory over the Bruins.
A midweek night game for the frosh-sophs on Wednesday, Jan. 22, vs. Cal Maritime’s top side in Vallejo will be followed by the 2014 home opener Saturday, Feb. 1, as the Bears and Beavers begin PAC Rugby Conference play on Witter Rugby Field. Another weeknight game follows Thursday, Feb. 13, at 6 p.m. against Stanford for the Scrum Axe before the Bears return home to host UBC in the opening leg of the “World Cup” series Saturday, Feb. 15, at noon. Cal has a current streak of seven straight Cup series wins against their Canadian rivals.
“UBC enjoyed a big win over University of Victoria recently and I think they have their best side in a decade,” Clark said. “Those two matches will be a real test for us.”
After a Wednesday night frosh-soph match against the Santa Clara University varsity at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 19, Cal welcomes Pac-12 Networks to Witter Rugby Field for a live Pac-12 Networks telecast of the Bears’ match against PAC conference foe UCLA on Saturday, Feb. 22, at 3 p.m.
Cal continues its PAC Rugby Conference schedule with a trip to the desert the following Friday, Feb. 28, for a 6 p.m. MT kickoff against Arizona State, followed on Sunday, March 2, with a visit to the University of Arizona (12 p.m. MT).
Cal will host Santa Rosa Junior College for a frosh-soph match Wednesday night, March 5, at 6:30 p.m. before playing Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo the following Saturday, March 8, at 1 p.m. The following weekend has the Bears wrapping up their PAC conference schedule at Utah, the same team against which they clinched the 2013 PAC 15s conference crown.
Monday Night Rugby returns to Witter Rugby Field and two former championship foes reunite 48 hours after the Bears fly home from Utah, when Cal hosts perennial Ivy League champion Dartmouth College at 6:30 p.m. on March 17. Having already renewed their longtime postseason rivalry in recent clashes at the CRC playing 7s, the Bears last hosted Big Green in 15s in 2005, but the two teams did not meet in that California Invitational, as Dartmouth fell to Ohio State on their side of the bracket.
The two teams have a championship history in the traditional form of the game that includes the 1986 and 1988 national collegiate championships, both won by Cal over Dartmouth at Pebble Beach, and more recently at the 1998 national postseason, when the Bears blanked Big Green in the Round of 8 in Houston. Dartmouth won the title at the 2012 CRC 7s, beating Cal along the way, and the Bears followed suit in 2013 with their first national 7s crown.
After its clash with Dartmouth, Cal will make its annual trip to Canada to play the Thunderbirds Sunday, March 23, at 1 p.m. in the second and final installment of the 2014 “World Cup” series, which is awarded to the team with most total points in their two matches each year. Last year in Vancouver, the Bears broke out of 6-6 tie with 32 unanswered points to cement their seventh straight series against British Columbia.
The regular season wraps up with the reopened account of the best local rugby rivalry in the Bay Area, as Cal visits Saint Mary’s for a match on Pat Vincent Field in Moraga at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 5. In their last 15s meeting, the Gaels and Bears played a classic on Witter Rugby Field, with Cal claiming a 42-31 victory.
“UCLA, Utah, Dartmouth, Saint Mary’s – I assume we will have our work cut out most weekends,” said Clark. “And some of those matches are right on top of each other. We will need a tough mentality and a strong bench.”
The 15s postseason awaits at the Varsity Cup National Championships, a 12-team, single-elimination tournament that will decide a national champion in front of a national TV audience on NBC Sports.
The Bears have earned a first-round bye into the second, quarterfinal Super Regional round on Saturday, April 19, with Cal and UCLA both being considered as the location; should Cal advance, it could be the host of a semifinal held the following Saturday, April 25. The final will be played May 3 with an announcement on that location expected soon.
The Bears buckle down for the end of the academic year as they transition from 15s back to 7s in preparation for the 2014 Collegiate Rugby Championship, held once again in Philadelphia, where Cal emerged with its first national 7s title at last year’s event. This final event of the 2013-14 year will also be televised nationally by NBC Sports.