BERKELEY – A premier cross-border intercollegiate competition between two storied programs, the 2014 edition of the “World Cup” between California and the University of British Columbia kicks off Saturday, Feb. 15, when the Thunderbirds and Golden Bears begin their annual home-and-away series at 1 p.m. on Witter Rugby Field.
Although the Bears (6-0) carry a seven-year series winning streak into the contest, which began in 1921 with a trophy from the Vancouver World newspaper, fans can expect a tense battle this weekend as the Thunderbirds (12-0) arrive in Strawberry Canyon with significant accomplishments already under their belts, while the Blue and Gold hope to be seasoned enough to withstand the test after six straight victories, only one of which, an abbreviated tournament match vs. UCLA in the Storer Classic final, offered the challenge Cal would need to prepare for the T-Birds.
Last year, Cal beat UBC by 10 points at home and then held the Birds at bay in Thunderbird Stadium to sweep the series. The British Columbia team that comes to Berkeley Saturday is riding a wave of momentum stoked by two wins over the University of Victoria and an undefeated season.
“By all accounts, this is the best UBC team in recent memory,” said head coach Jack Clark. “The Thunderbirds are always good but this season they appear special, possibly the top college or club team in all of Canada. It will be a big damn challenge for us. Our best players will need to make plays and others will need to remove ‘unproven’ from the front of their names. Collectively, we need to play our guts out for our University.”
Longtime British Columbia head coach Spence McTavish, a member of the BC Sports Hall of Fame, has taken on the role of general manager this year and orchestrated a staff led by head coach Rameses Langston. After beating UVic the second time to secure the Wightman Boot for winning the series, coach Langston dedicated that win and the entire year to McTavish for his almost 20 years of work with the team.
Cal carries a known strength into the match on the shoulders of its backline, projected to come in unchanged compared to the group that started against UBC last March in Canada: sophomore Russell Webb at flyhalf, seniors Jared Braun and Seamus Kelly at the centers, junior Andrew Battaglia and senior Josh Tucker at the wings, and senior Jake Anderson at fullback.
The T-Birds’ backline is talented, too, led by fifth-year Nate Rees, a 6-0, 200-pound Welsh international who also starred at Cardiff before moving to the Capilano RFC, three-time winner of the BC Premier Championship.
The return from injury this spring of senior Paul Bosco to start at No. 9 adds a dimension to the Rugby Bears’ attack, and the projected starting all-senior back row of flankers Jack O’Beirne and Alec Gletzer, together with No. 8 Tiaan De Nysschen, bodes well for Cal’s abilities to link the backs.
However, after loosehead prop Tanner Mohr, a senior who earned honorable mention All-America honors in 2012-13, the Bears’ starting tight forwards are very inexperienced, begging the question of how they will perform under pressure. No. 2 Michael Bush, a junior, has logged barely more than a match at hooker in his transition from the back row; the tighthead prop position will be manned by sophomore George Vrame; and the made-in-New-York lock combination of sophomore James Kondrat and senior Patrick Coleman will be in their third match together so far this season.
Going up against a UBC team with a taste for physical play up front, flavored by forces like Canadian U-20 lock Connor Hamilton, the Bears could find themselves on the back foot in both set pieces and open play, which could potentially spell danger for the backline.
Territorial kicking, always a key to victory in the “Cup,” will shine a spotlight on Webb and Anderson and their counterparts in the UBC backfield, flyhalf/center Brock Staller and fullback Francois du Toit, while Bosco will match wits at scrumhalf with T-Birds No. 9 Jordan Best.
Cal has its first Pac-12 Networks TV broadcast of a match on Witter Rugby the following Saturday, Feb. 22, to welcome UCLA in conference action, but that’s the last thing on the team’s collective mind entering the weekend. On Saturday, it’s on between the Golden Bears and Thunderbirds in their latest edition of must-see rugby.