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2017 Varsity Cup Final: Cal 43 vs. Arkansas State 13, instant recap

Golden Bears repeat as Varsity Cup champions in front of mostly home crowd down in Santa Clara University.

Captain Russell Webb will look to lead the Cal Golden Bears to a repeat Varsity Cup title.
Cal Varsity Rugby Twitter

More comprehensive recap is coming tomorrow after I have the chance to watch the tape delayed action. Golden Bears scored the first try (and conversion) and never looked back (although the score was merely 7-3 for awhile) en route to a 44-13 victory. Freshman Sam Cusano scored 3 tries to lead the way for the Bears.

A huge congratulations to head coach Jack Clark and the boys on winning the program’s 32nd national title, 28th in rugby union. This is also Cal’s 2nd team national title of the school year after the men’s water polo triumph last December. Cal now have 96 national championships in school history. Of course, Cal Rugby has another strong chance to add to that title this year when they go for a five-peat at the rugby 7s championship at the CRC (I will be there to cover the action in person again...for the fifth straight year). Other Cal spring sports (crew and tennis) may also add to the 96.


Last year, California Golden Bears Rugby won the first double of both the national championship in Rugby Union (15s) and Rugby 7s in program history by claiming their first Varsity Cup (1st time in 5 years) along with the 4th straight Collegiate Rugby Championship, respectively. Bears started to play for the Rugby 7s college championship back in 2010 (a final loss to Utah), but also sat out of the 15s national championship in 2012 to force the creation of the Varsity Cup. In other words, Bears won the double national titles for the first time in 2016 out of 6 tries. This year, the Bears will attempt to defend both national titles. The first big step is to repeat as the Varsity Cup champion today.

Since the creation of the Varsity Cup in 2013, every final had involved Cal and BYU. All the finals have taken place in the state of Utah as well. Everything changed this past offseason why BYU was forced to vacate their 2015 title for using an ineligible player, then they decided to quit the Varsity Cup competition. Without the historically strong BYU club in the fold, California Golden Bears have a much clearer path to a 2nd Varsity Cup national championship this year.

Golden Bears will be playing for 32nd national title in program history, and the 28th rugby 15s national title. The next Cal team national championship would be the 96th title in Cal Athletics history.

Let’s take a closer look of the two teams:

California Golden Bears (16-3)

Last national title: 2016

How they got here: 1st round bye, 71-7 over Clemson, 35-14 over Penn State

The most storied college rugby program in the United States, California Golden Bears are very familiar with the Varsity Cup final, having played in all 5 of them in Varsity Cup history including this one. After losing three straight finals to BYU (two by just 3 points), an underdog Bears team finally prevailed in 2016 in one of the most exciting win in program history.

Captain Russell Webb was instrumental in that victory (he was the Man of the Match) and he is back to lead the Bears to a repeat title. Also back are two other experienced key guys in Anthony Salaber and Patrick Barrientes.

The rest of the Bears’ starting 15 have significantly less experience coming into this season but they are certainly battle-tested by now.

From preview:

In the front row, freshman Damon Wiley is likely the choice at No. 3, binding on to hooker Wade Ogburn and across from loosehead prop Kevin Sullivan. Sophomore Robert Paylor is looking to return from an injury that kept him out of the semifinal to start at lock next to Connor Sweet, while freshman Thomas Spradling and sophomore Nic Mirhashem appear to be the selections at flanker on either side of No. 8 Drew Gaffney.

Freshman Keanu Andrade could punctuate his first spring 15s campaign with another start at scrumhalf, feeding it to a midfield combination of Russell Webb at flyhalf, Patrick Barrientes inside and Anthony Salaber at outside center. On the wings, freshman Sam Cusano should have another opportunity to start, as will Jake Goena, while Aidan Flynn could be tasked with the fullback's job in only his second career start at that positon.

Arkansas State Red Wolves (9-1-1)

Last national title: never won, lost in 2012 final to BYU 49-42

How they got here: 69-7 over Oklahoma, 39-12 over Utah Valley, 25-7 over Navy

Arkansas State is an experienced team with plenty of international players (typical of all top US collegiate teams). Their lone loss this year was a 52-0 rout by Life. They also had a 17-17 tie with Lindenwood. Their biggest regular season (non-Varsity Cup) win was 46-23 over Indiana.

Again from the preview:

Projected to start at No. 1 for Arkansas State is Brandon van Niekerk from Johannesburg, South Africa. Possible choices at hooker include senior Kuda Makuvire from Harare, Zimbabwe, and George Sharp from Nottingham, England, either of whom could line up alongside tighthead prop Tanner Pope, a junior from Katy, Texas. The second row for the Red Wolves could include South African Taboo Mareer next to Campbell Robinson, a major ball-winning jumper from Rosewell, Ga. The back row is anchored by captain Blace Walser, a senior from Tulsa, Okla.

In the backline, the scrumhalf for Arkansas State is expected to be Brock Roper from Wellington, New Zealand, or James Melish, who hails from Hertfordshire, England. One of them will likely distribute to flyhalf Zachary Young from Gold Coast, Australia; centers Julien Moustier from Montpellier, France, and Sione Fanaiuiha from Canberra, Australia; wing Valentin Balade from Bordeaux, France; and fullback Ridley Cunningham, who hails from Sydney, Australia.

The Arkansas State backline is particularly potent. Bears will have to make good defensive decisions to keep them contained. Fanaiuiha scored two tries for the Red Wolves against Navy in the semifinal.

The Bears last met Arkansas State in the 2016 CRC (rugby 7s) where the Bears won 24-12 and then 24-14 in the knock out round. The lone common opponent for the two teams this year was Clemson who the Bears defeated 71-7 and the Red Wolves defeated 76-24.

5 Keys to a Cal Victory

1) Follow the three 5th year senior leaders

With the trio of 5th year seniors, Russell Webb, Anthony Salaber, and Patrick Barrientes in key (if not always scoring) positions, Golden Bears have plenty of experiences to lean on on the field. These guys have played for the national titles before and know what needs to be done. I expect all three of these guys to score tries today.

2) Let youth run free

Freshmen Keanu Andrade and Damon Wiley each scored two tries in the semifinal against Penn State to lead the Bears. They will get more opportunities today. Fellow freshman Sam Cusano have also scored a try for the Bears this postseason. The young Bears will not necessarily be deferring to their more experienced teammates today.

Not knowing enough about the Arkansas State team, I don’t know how physical they are. Play up the middle in scrums have not been the Bears’ strong suit this year against the better teams (particularly against UBC), Bears will probably have more success on the wing in making the defenders miss tackles to score tries.

3) Embrace the partisan pro-Cal crowd

For the first time in quite some time, Cal Rugby gets to play in the Bay Area for the national championship. This year’s match will take place in South Bay at Santa Clara University. Bears had to win the 2016 Varsity Cup in enemy territory at BYU last year. They will finally get to enjoy the home support, and the added pressure from that.

4) Finish the match strong

Other than the two losses to the very experienced UBC club, the Bears’ lone other loss came against St. Mary’s College (who will also be playing in a college rugby national championship match today in the Bay Area when they take on Life in the D1A national championship - the competitor for the Varsity Cup that is operated by USA Rugby). In the SMC match, the Bears faltered late by allowing SMC to score a couple late tries to pull ahead. No matter the margin, expect the Bears to respect their opponent today to keep pushing for extra scores.

5) Make conversions!

Although these two extra points after tries may not matter by the end of the game, they are huge at the beginning of the match. Heavy wind of 15-25 miles per hour are expected. Bears need to harness the wind to make the point after kicks after tries.

My prediction for this national championship: Cal 50, Arkansas State 26

Golden Bears may only be up by two scores (<14 points) at the half, but they will use their superior depth to run away earlier in the 2nd half for the rout.

NOTE: Yes, there is that other (D1A) national championship being played in Moraga at 4:30 pm PT (and on CBS Sports Network) between Life and SMC. I personally would love to see college rugby unite to have just one national titles but there are plenty of politics that I don’t understand (nor care for). Regardless, we will have two schools claiming a Rugby 15s national title at the end of the season yet again (and again and again) until one day in the future when we will have an undisputed champion again.

2017 Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Final

Where: Stevens Stadium (Santa Clara, CA)

When: May 6th, 2017 at noon PT

TV: NBCSN (tape delay for 7:30 pm PT) - what year is this?

I am hoping for a live stream of the action online but not very optimistic. CGB will likely spoil the results on the front page and in the comments below before I get the chance to watch the replay and write a more comprehensive recap for tomorrow (win or lose).