One team first boasted of a rugby team in the 19th Century, and has won more national DI titles than anyone else combined.
But the stories Cal program isn’t stuck in the past, just as Life University isn’t necessarily the wave of the future. Both just want to win a rugby game in Moraga, Calif. on Saturday.
This highly-anticipated College Premier Division Quarterfinals is to be played at St. Mary’s because Cal’s field is now a construction site.
“We haven’t played at home all season and won’t next season,” said Cal Head Coach Jack Clark. “We’re very grateful to the St. Mary’s team, coaches and administration for renting us their field for this game. It will work out well – we’re right in the middle of Golden Bear country there.”
It’s a first for Life – first game against Cal, first college competition playoff game, first game in Moraga. It’s a homecoming of sorts for Life assistant coach Alex Houser, who was a highly-respected starter for the Bears some years ago. But it will also, likely, be a harsh learning experience. Life has some players, and coaches, and a team … but this will all be new.
“We’re here to play,” said Life Head Coach Dan Payne. “It’s like anything at this time of year the guys are excited to play and when you get a chance to play the best it’s something you want. This has been a great year and this kind of game … you couldn’t ask for more.”
Ironically for the Running Eagles, flying across the country has been the easiest travel weekend of their season. No marathon bus trips for them. Now we just have to see what’s at the other end.
For Cal, it’s not been an easy week. It’s reading week going right into finals.
“The guys are hammered academically so we’ve tried to keep things shorter and get done what we need to get done and not infringe on their studies,” said Clark. “This is new territory for us, playing this late in the spring. And if we win it just gets harder, with finals and graduation.”
Also new territory is the fact that Cal won’t be playing two playoff games in a weekend. Clark has been a master of managing his players through such weekends, and has done it for years. Now, it’s just one game.
“Now you’ve got just one team to field, and the quality of the team you put out is much higher than back in the day of a Friday-Saturday, or Saturday-Sunday weekend,” Clark said. “Before you’d always save some players. Now we put out our best 15.”
Clark said he knows what his best squad is - with perhaps a little shuffling based on the specific opponent, but strssed he will have to get the bench right, too.
“I am pretty pleased with the team,” Clark said. “We know Life is a pretty organized team. There’s quite a bit of stuff they do at the line of touch and they train quite a bit. Watching them you can see they have more menu items than most teams that we play, and they obviously have a real good back row.”
It’s that back row that will perhaps be the focus of a battle. Cam Dolan, Garrett Lambert and Jamey Penca are hard-hitters who can move around the field for Life. Cal replies with Tom Rooke and Derek Asbun, who are tireless hard workers, and Danny Barrett, who can explode with some outstanding play almost at will.
Elsewhere, Cal is just a little bit, and sometimes a lot, more experienced. Their back three of Dustin Muhn, James McTurk and Blaine Scully are superb and James Bailes is having an excellent season at flyhalf.
“I am pretty happy with our backs,” said Clark, ominously.
“This whole year has been quite an enjoyable experience,” said Payne of Life’s journey. “We didn’t know what to expect. The guys have come in with a great attitude, they’ve worked really hard, and wanted to get better each week. We have so many young guys I think there’s a huge upside to this group. The thing that about Cal is the tempo of the game they play and their fitness is something than people overlook. It takes a ton of work to play that way, and to have that mental discipline to have to be fit.”
Life cannot let off for a second, said Payne.
“If you do, they can score three tries on you in a matter of minutes,” he said. “We’ve been having those peaks and valleys throughout this season, and we can’t afford to this time.”
Meanwhile Clark praised his players for not complaining about having to find a new place to train and play because of the construction work going on at Witter Field.
“The players have been really good,” said Clark. “You have a ten to one ratio of training to playing, right? So the change in training has had a massive effect on our team. Still, we go out there and put in a body of work and hope it’s good enough to get into the postseason. We know that in the old system we usually got a lower seed and the games were easier. Not in the Premier Division. The system has changed.”