There’s something special and exciting, and also kind of weird, about this weekend’s Cal v. St. Mary’s game.
This is the main college rivalry in Northern California. Whenever Cal is at all concerned about losing a match, it’s because of the Gaels. And if there’s a team that has no fear of Cal – including no fear of a blowout – it’s St. Mary’s.
However, Cal dominates the history of this matchup, so while it’s a rivalry with several very competitive games in its history, Cal is on a massive winning streak.
It’s also kind of weird because this game has no bearing on anything. For the first time since 1980 this game has no affect on the standings or playoffs. In fact, you’d forgive St. Mary’s for selecting down for the game just to save their players for the playoffs. They won’t, of course, but the vibe is still odd.
St. Mary’s is coming off a three-game tour of Wales and Ireland, where they beat Cardiff University on the last play of the game, lost to Trinity U20s on the last play of the game, and lost also to a Connacht Academy XV that Head Coach Tim O’Brien stressed was “far, far from their best side.”
They come out of the tour healthier than when they went in. No. 8 Joe Brophy is back in training, and possibly available to play. Bubba Jones is back from an injury suffered playing 7s in December, and could well see time on Saturday.
“The tour was great,” said O’Brien. “We took kids who were able to go, and they got game time. The games were perfect in terms of how competitive they needed to be. It’s part of what has been a terrific, competitive season. We’ve played UBC, Utah, BYU, Golden Gate, some other men’s clubs, and now Cal. Everybody’s pumped up.”
Cal comes into the match knowing this is their final 15s game of the season. The Bears pulled out of the D1-A season in December (otherwise this game would be part of their Pacific Conference schedule), and while they wanted to enter an underclassmen team in D1-AA, they were denied that request by USA Rugby.
So this, their 17th game of the season, is it. Cal is 15-1, losing 22-20 to Cal Poly. They were also pushed by UBC (13-12 in San Francisco) and Utah (23-22 in Salt Lake City), but overall their points for and against is a healthy 1045-109.
“We feel good,” said Clark, adding that the prospect of not playing for a national championship has not diminished his season. “I think the team has made some strong progress. There wasn’t a lot of experience in the side, but we had some good young talent and I’m impressed with the team’s development.”
Perhaps the game that really showed Clark what he had was the return engagement with UBC, when Cal went to Vancouver up only a point in the two-game series, and won 46-20.
“That was a very rewarding experience,” said Clark. “The team played with a maturity that’s beyond their years. It’s been kind of fun to be able to coach kids and you think in a year’s time, this is going to be something special. Promise is a fun thing.”
Cal started three sophomores against UBC, lock Patrick Coleman, flanker Tiaan De Nysschen, and fullback Jake Anderson, who has really come along. Freshman Andrew Battaglia has also seen starts, while sophomore Paul Bosco has found himself shifting from scrumhalf to flyhalf in place of the still-injured Alex Aronson – a difficult task taken on by the young Bosco with great determination.
They will need all of those talented youngsters as they have lost some senior talent. Expected to be out is Danny Barrett, who has emerged as an outstanding player – he has always been very good, but perhaps now more consistently so. Cal will miss his dynamism, and it’s worth noting that Barrett’s coast-to-coast try was the backbreaker against St. Mary’s last year.
O’Brien puts aside worrying about who will wear the Cal jersey.
“Cal is still the finest program, and finest rugby academy, in the country,” said the St. Mary’s coach. “As is the case every year we have had meaningful match play against Cal, they test every inch of your abilities and St. Mary’s always emerges from the contest a better team. Our hope Sunday is to play a competitive, error free match which the players enjoy and the coaches will be able to use to improve team performance down the road. Our players love this game.”
Andrew Cook will captain a St. Mary’s team that returns eight starters from the squad that lost 60-34 to the Bears last season. Center Seamus Kelly, who, like Cook, is having an excellent season, will lead a Cal team that is young and still developing.
There might be five seniors on the field all told, in a game that is sure to be replayed next year with even greater fervor.
“We’re not looking at it as a quasi championship,” explained Clark. “We look at it like we always look at the St. Mary’s game - a local game, that draws very well. St. Mary’s is a really quality opponent and by all account they’re one of the top teams in the country. We are just excited to go play the game.”
Nothing weird about that.
Cal plays St. Mary’s at 1pm at the St. Mary’s rugby field in Moraga, Calif.