Cal's rugby squad is the envy (and often the HATED envy) of many other collegiate programs. Rugby Magazine's senior editor Alex Goff explains why ...
Rugby Magazine (March 8, 2009)
By Alex Goff
The Team Everyone Else is Chasing
The University of California Golden Bears didn’t play this weekend, but they weren’t idle, as the coaching staff put them through a set of team-building activities.
And to many others in college rugby, the idea of the Bears becoming any more close as a team has got to get them worried, because Cal has not looked challenged in any game they’ve played so far – not even against mighty UBC.
Head coach Jack Clark, however, is quick to put the kibosh on any thoughts of Cal being a finished product.
“We’ve been uneven,” Clark told RUGBYMag.com. “We show signs of playing some pretty good rugby in patches and then we’ve been pretty ordinary. There’ve been games where if you weren’t there and you didn’t study the tape, you’d think we did OK. Against San Diego State and UBC the scoreline may have looked like that’s a team headed in the right direction. But on further analysis of those performances, we still have a long way to go.”
It’s a common to hear Clark say it’s not about the score, but reaching certain benchmarks. But usually, too, scores follow performances. Against San Diego State, for example, Cal had the game in hand early, but were outscored in the second half.
“It’s about the performance not about how many points we scored in one half or the other,” said Clark. “Look, we’re a pretty athletic team. We can score long-range tries, out forward groups are good if you give them a beachhead in close. We can score tries in different ways. All the good teams can kick the ball, all the good teams can score, all can score primary phase tries with their backline and the good teams can all play in fractured play to some degree. We have a bit of competency in all of those areas but it’s about drilling down further and looking at our performance in some detail. We haven’t been able to put it together from all 15, even from an effort level. I think we’ve been caught out on effort and caught out on learning the same lessons over and over again.”
Still they’ve been better than their opposition, and Clark isn’t fretting, saying that all teams improve over the spring and his will be no different.
And they have talent to spare, especially in the backs where Blaine Scully has 11 tries, Dustin Muhn ten and Colin Hawley nine. Flanker Jason Law has touched down seven times. The team’s the co-captains - Keegan Engelbrecht, Hawley and Eric Fry - have been leading well and playing to expectations. Engelbrecht has been outstanding with his goalkicking, scoring 132 points so far. Center/wing Scully, said Clark, “is having an outstanding year. He’s been a real threat on the field.”
The Cal backs have been very good and, their coach said, perhaps a little further ahead than the forwards.
“We have fewer proven players in the forwards,” Clark said. “We’re doing OK there but we’re not dominant by any stretch of imagination.”
After this off weekend, Cal gets into it. They play a makeup game with Chico State on Saturday, followed by Homecoming against St. Mary’s a week later in a game that will decide who wins Northern California. Four days later the Bears will be in Vancouver to play the return match against UBC, followed a day later by Pacific Northwest champions Central Washington. And suddenly, it’s on to the playoffs, just like that.
A compeltely new starting lineup will face Central Washington, and that's all been part of the Clark modus operandi. He will field a team of only freshmen and sophomores, or maybe a 2nd XV, but won't say so - simply putting them on the field as Cal.
"Training volumes are so much more significant than game volumes," said Clark. "Training is where we truly build depth. No one holds bag more than anyone else. All players being coached. But competition plays a part as well. What we try to do with the reserves is to give them as many opportunites as is practical to play as Cal, not just as the second match of the day, but go out and represent Cal. The parents come out in force to see their son be a starter. The boys take on the pride of representing the program. It provides everybody a little bit of authorship to the team, and it improves the development of the players."
But as the games get more important, the competition for starting places becomes tougher.
“The next stretch the right challenge for our team,” said Clark. “We’ll up our training. The volume and intensity will increase in April and we’ll back off matches. This team is an awfully fun team to work with. They’re way into it, they’re trying hard, but they don’t know what they don’t know. However the guys are very level-headed and clear about their own abilities and our collective abilities. Overall, we’re improving.”
Which, as we said, can’t be good news for anyone else.