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Cal at 2017 Collegiate Rugby (7s) Championship Preview: New challenges as Bears seek a 5-peat

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Golden Bears are looking for a 5th straight rugby 7s championship.

With Bay Area rival St. Mary’s joining the CRC field for the first time, will it be the two Bay Area teams playing for the 2017 CRC title comes Sunday afternoon?
Cal Varsity Rugby Facebook

For the 2nd consecutive year, California Golden Bears Rugby will be looking to win the double of both the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup (Rugby 15s) national championship and the Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (Rugby 7s) national championship. Head coach Jack Clark’s side are looking for their 5th consecutive CRC title, after falling short in this Olympic format in the first three years of this tournament’s existence (runner-up in year 1, 3rd place in 2012). Cal is 37-3 all time in 7 years of CRC participations, including 4 consecutive 6-0 runs to win the past 4 national titles.

While the Cal Bears are considered the favorite in this 24 team tournament this weekend, the competition level at the CRC has steadily improved every year. If the knock against the Blue and Gold’s Varsity Cup championship earlier this year was that the Varsity Cup competition in 2017 was not nearly as good with the exit of BYU from that competition (after BYU were sanctioned for using ineligible player and forced to vacate their 2015 Varsity Cup title), the path to this 5th straight CRC title will likely be a gauntlet (still no BYU at the CRC though, because this tournament does play on Sunday). With the faster pace of just two 7 minutes halves, Rugby 7s does offer the underdog teams more of a chance to win. It is harder to be so dominant and to extend the Golden Bears’ 25 match CRC winning streak (dating back to the 2012 3rd place match).

Pool play will take place on Saturday as the Bears play the other three Pool E teams for a spot in the final 8 on Sunday. With 6 pools this year, the top team from each pool and the next two teams (probably determined by the tiebreaker of point differential) will advance to the knockout stage on Sunday. In Pool E, Cal will play the Clemson Tigers (who they also defeated in the Varsity Cup quarterfinal), the Penn State Nittany Lions (a CRC quarterfinalist last year and a side that the Bears defeated in the quarterfinal of the 2014 CRC), and the Delaware Blue Hens.

Pool E Schedule:

Cal vs. Clemson - 7:40 AM PT

Cal vs. Penn State - 12:05 PM PT

Cal vs. Delaware - 2:34 PM PT

For the 5th consecutive year, yours truly will be on site for this event. Check the @GoldenBlogs twitter feed for match results and any schedule updates this weekend.


Cal Squad for the 2017 CRC

Leading the Golden Bears this weekend from Chester, PA (outside Philadelphia) are the trio of 5th year seniors in Russell Webb, Anthony Salaber, and Patrick Barrientes. All three Bears are CRC vets. The captain, Russell Webb, will play the position of the scrumhalf and also be responsible for all the kicking duties, including all the conversions. Webb had some struggle with making the conversions in the Varsity Cup semifinal this year before bouncing back in a big way in the championship final. At the CRC, Webb is No.1 all time in making conversions with 38. The Hong Kong native has also scored 8 tries in 16 matches.

Anthony Salaber is a big prop or center for the Bears in 7s. He has scored 4 tries in 10 CRC matches. Patrick Barrientes plays the flyhalf. He has 5 tries from the outside in 14 CRC matches. Both Salaber and Barrientes have contributed to all 4 of the previous Cal rugby 7s national titles.

Behind Webb, Salaber, and Barrientes, Bears will also have Jake Goena (2 tries in 5 matches) and William Fuller (3 tries in 4 matches before being injured ) on their 2nd CRC appearances.

The rest of the Cal travel squad are CRC rookies. They are freshmen Sam Cusano (who scored a team high three tries in the Varsity Cup final) and Christian Dyer, sophomore Nic Mirhashem, juniors Aidan Flynn and Zac Tavenner, and seniors Drew Gaffney and Connor Sweet. The two alternatives are freshman Keanu Andrade and senior Miles Honens. Bears’ 4 CRC victories have coincided with playing in the fall rugby 7s. Even the CRC rookies have played for the Bears last fall in Cal’s 5th consecutive PAC 7s conference title.


Main CRC competitions

Thanks largely to this tournament being broadcasted live on NBC every year, CRC has grown bigger with the addition of women’s championship, smaller college championship, high school championship, and a 6 team Philadelphia area championship in recent years. The main men’s championship has also gotten much stronger with new programs needing to win tournaments just to qualify for this event.

Here are the main competitions for the Golden Bears this year:

Pool A: Saint Mary’s, Dartmouth

Big news for the CRC this year is the addition of Cal’s East Bay neighbor in Saint Mary’s College. The Gaels were the top ranked 15s side this season, winning the USA Rugby D1 national championship (that other 15s collegiate national title) in addition to upset the Bears at Witter Field. Cal played SMC in the fall in 7s and won, but the Gaels are probably the other favorite for the 2017 CRC title. Dylan Audsley is arguably the best player in the entire tournament. Gaels also have Kevin O’Connor and Mike McCarthy who are playmakers. SMC just recently (last weekend) finished 2nd behind Lindenwood in the USA Rugby 7s championship (aka the other 7s collegiate national title).

Dartmouth won the CRC in 2011 and 2012 but has not looked nearly as strong in recent year. To be fair, they had Madison Hughes (now a mainstay on the USA Rugby 7s team) back in their championships winning days and have yet to find a superstar replacement. Dawit Workie may be that next superstar for the Big Green. Dartmouth has made the quarterfinals in every CRC (like Cal).

Pool B: Life, Arkansas State

The Life Running Eagles consist of many internationals who moved to suburban Atlanta for a chiropractor degree. Life has had the biggest non-local supporting squad at the CRC every year. They are also quite good. Bears defeated Life 19-17 in 2013 for the program’s 1st CRC title. They have made at least the semifinals in the past 4 years. Cody Melphy and the memorably named Harley Davidson are players to watch.

Arkansas State Red Wolves are the 2017 Varsity Cup Runner-ups to the Bears. They are another deep team with plenty of international players. They have made the knockout stage in each of the past two season (their only two seasons at the CRC).

Pool C: Lindenwood, Army, Navy

The Lindenwood Lions had to win the Vegas qualifier to make the CRC this year. However, they also won the USA Rugby College 7s national championship in the last week, beating SMC 24-5, to be a strong contender. Lindenwood’s women’s program has won the CRC in the past, making this school a rugby powerhouse.

Both Army and Navy get a mention here because they have had strong rugby programs. They should be in the mix for a quarterfinal berth.

Pool D: UCLA

Runner-up in the 2016 CRC to Cal (a 31-7 defeat), the Baby Bears from UCLA are an improving program. However, they were beaten relatively easier by the Bears this past fall. They are led by the Barry brothers - Cian and Niall. Bruins have also been eliminated by the Bears in the CRC semifinals in 2013 and 2014.

Pool F: Kutztown

The other “Golden Bears” at the CRC comes from Buck County, PA (a little bit north of Philadelphia). Kutztown were the national runner-ups to the Bears in 2014 (Cal 24-21 victory after a last second meaningless try to Kutztown) and 2015 (Cal 17-12 victory that came in sudden death OT). Alex Faison-Donahoe is the star for Kutztown and a player that have spent time with the USA developmental team.

My picks for the quarterfinalists:

Saint Mary’s from A, Life from B, Lindenwood from C, UCLA from D, Cal from E, Kutztown from F. The two 2nd place finishers that advances will be Arkansas State and Army (via point differential tiebreaker over 2-1 Dartmouth and Penn State).

I see a Cal vs. SMC showdown in the final with Kutztown and Lindenwood being the other two semifinalists.


Try for Robert Paylor

In case you have not heard, Cal sophomore Robert Paylor was injured in the opening minutes of the 2017 Varsity Cup Championship match. It was unclear what had happened in the scrum but once Paylor went down, he did not get back up. After Paylor went immediately to the hospital, Cal Rugby family learned that the young man has suffered paralysis in all four limbs. Help Cal sophomore Robert Paylor with his medical expenses. His GoFundMe page has raised over $635,000 so far with the target goal of $1 million to cover just the first year or so of medical expenses and rehab.

If you are in the Philadelphia area, both Tir Na Nog and Con Murphy in Center City will donate $1 of each beer sold this weekend to Robert Paylor’s fund. You might also run into former Cal Rugby alum and 2016 Rio Olympian Danny Barrett at one of these bars. You can find yours truly with other Cal Philly alumni club member at Tir Na Nog tonight starting at around 8pm ET-ish.

There is no doubt that Robert Paylor will be in the minds of his rugby teammates. Should the Cal Golden Bears find a way to win this weekend, they will attribute the championship to Paylor as a source of inspiration.

Coach Clark released the following statement on the team’s play and Robert:

The following is a statement from head coach Jack Clark: I’m here with our team in Philadelphia at the Collegiate Rugby...

Posted by Cal Varsity Rugby on Friday, June 2, 2017

#TryForPaylor


2017 Collegiate Rugby Championship

Where: Talen Energy Park (Chester, PA)

When: June 3rd (pool play) and June 4th (knockout stage)

TV:

June 3rd -

12-2 PT on NBC and 2-3 PT on NBCSN (Cal’s Penn State and Delaware matches should be broadcasted live)

June 4th -

10-12 PT on NBCSN with 12-2 PT on NBC (live semifinal and final action after tape delayed quarterfinal)

GO BEARS!