Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) is Bear Territory!!!
Sure, the majority of the “Golden Bears” fans that you find at Talen Energy Stadium and the surrounding “Rugby Festival” this past weekend are rooting for the more local Kutztown variety (and they were actively rooting against our beloved Golden Bears during the 19-10 Cal victory on Sunday Morning’s quarterfinal). Yet, the number of random rugby fans that are sporting Cal gears (and look completely befuddled when I give them a “Go Bears!” shout) at the CRC is increasing every year. Random rugby fans were asking me (unabashedly sporting Cal gear, despite masquerading as a member of the press) about when/where the Cal bus will go, so they can try to get autographs. On Saturday morning, I overheard a high school rugby player gushing about the opportunity to see Russell Webb play in person; he was watching Webb getting ready for the Cal’s 1st game of the weekend against Clemson like Warriors fans focusing on Steph Curry’s warmup rituals. Most importantly, the Cal dominance on the field is undeniable - 5 straight CRC titles (6-0 run in each one) after this latest triumph.
Even with 8 players (each team only brings 14, including 2 reserves) making their CRC debut this weekend, Golden Bears had a wealth of experience with Hall of Fame head coach Jack Clark on the sideline and Hall of Fame coach Tom Billups with him. On the field, both Anthony Salaber (a 3rd generation Cal Rugby player) and Patrick Barrientes (whose proud father was taking photos for the team from the sidelines for his every CRC trip) were making their 5th straight trip to Philadelphia. Captain Russell Webb is making his 4th CRC trip, after missing one of the CRC due to an injury. All three of these Bears were freshman on the 2013 team (a team that included Calympian Danny Barrett who was at this year’s CRC with USA Rugby) that won the CRC for the very first time; they have never experienced the agony of defeat at the CRC competition in their splendid Cal Rugby careers.
That is because the Golden Bears have done it again in 2017 (or more precisely, again and again and again and again after that initial 2013 national championship) - California Golden Bears are the ones lifting that Pete Dawkins Trophy (named for a former West Point rugby player and Heisman winner) at the end of the NBC weekend coverage yet again, extending their CRC record for most championships to 5 (Dartmouth, twice, and Utah are the only other CRC champs in the 8 year history).
After rolling through Pool E with 3 dominant victories over Clemson, Penn State, and Delaware, despite brief moments of vulnerability. Golden Bears survived the Sunday gauntlet of Kutztown (and their large group of supporters), Indiana, and Life (also a huge contingent of supporters) en route to another national title - 33rd in program history.
This championship occurred despite the tragic circumstance of a paralyzed teammate Robert Paylor, who suffered his spinal cord injury in the Varsity Cup championship final a month ago. Bears had considered pulling out of the CRC, but opted at the end to defend this title thanks to the great courage showed by Paylor in his tough battle against life’s unexpected challenge. With the hashtag “#TryForPaylor” on their chest, the Golden Bears persevered in their title defense. May Robert Paylor’s long rehab ahead and the GoFundMe effort to raise fund to pay for that be as successful as the Cal title defense at the CRC this past weekend.
Semifinal: Cal 29, Indiana 14
Bears opened up the scoring with a Drew Gaffney try up the middle that was set up by the uncanny vision and passing of the three 5th year seniors in the center; the ball went from Salaber to Webb to Barrientes to a streaking Gaffney for the try.
Cal had a solid chance to go up by another score, but Zach Tavenner’s pass to a wide open winger Sam Cusano was not there and took a forward bounce for the turnover.
Playing very solid rugby all weekend long, the Hoosiers answered with a try scored by Alex Dorrier toward the outside. More impressively, Indiana was able to make difficult ensuing conversion to knot up this match.
Just before the half, the Bears would get an important try to go ahead for good. Russell Webb set this one up with some fancy footwork while juking in front of 4 Hoosiers defenders. This allowed the Bears to have the man advantage on the right wing. Barrientes was the beneficiary for the try. Even though Webb was not able to convert the tough conversion from a tough angle, Bears are up 12-7 at the half.
The second half was when Cal Rugby does what it does best - dominate the match. It all started with captain Russell Webb. Webb used his footwork and speed for a crushing try a minute into the 2nd half after Indiana had possession for about 10 seconds. On the ensuing possession, Bears drove down the field and Webb flipped the ball to a streaking Cusano for another try. Bears continued to dominant the possession in preserving the 24-7 lead.
After all the key players were all subbed off with the match in hand, Bears scored another try (Will Fuller) and conceded a stoppage time try (and conversion) to Indiana for the final margin.
The Team vs. Indiana
1. Salaber, 2. Barrientes 3. Gaffney, 4. R Webb, 5. Flynn, 6. Tavenner, 7. Cusano
Replacements: Andrade, Fuller, Dyer, Sweet, Mirhashem
Final: Cal 19, Life 0
With the Life Running Eagles defeating Lindenwood (the 2017 USA Rugby 7s national champion from two weeks ago) 24-12, the 2017 CRC final was a rematch of the 2013 final - that 1st CRC national championship won by the Golden Bears in the 4th year of this competition.
For whatever reason, I was unusually nervous about this final - possibly due to the underwhelming Cal Men’s Crew Varsity 8 race that I was watching from the press box while waiting for this match.
The championship final was a defensive struggle as both sides were very disciplined on their tackles. Life’s captain Harley Davidson had a seemingly open lane in the first minute but Zach Tavenner was able to make a big solo tackle.
The two sides then traded drives down the field that did not amount to points. Just when it looked like the match might be scoreless going into the half, Bears induced a yellow card penalty to earn a pivotal man advantage. Senior Connor Sweet eventually was the Bear that pounded the ball into the try zone. Webb made the conversion to put the Bears ahead 7-0 at the half.
In the second half, freshman Sam Cusano used his game breaking speed to score two tries running down the sideline (second one was set up nicely by Aidan Flynn). Bears dominated the time of possession again to earn the shutout.
The Team vs. Life
1. Salaber, 2. Barrientes, 3. Sweet, 4. Webb, 5. Flynn, 6. Tavenner, 7. Cusano
Replacements: Gaffney, Andrade
Congratulations to Coach Clark and his team on winning another national championship - the 97th team national championship in Cal Athletics history. Golden Bears have now won 5 rugby 7s national championships to go with 28 rugby 15s national championships for a total of 33 national titles combined, by far the most out of all the Cal programs.
With two tries in the championship final (and five for the weekend), freshman Sam Cusano was named the Most Valuable Player of the tournament. I am certain that Cusano would be the first person to credit his teammates for making him look good on the field this weekend. Nonetheless, it was comforting to know that some of the key players such as Cusano, Tavenner, Flynn, Goena (who was great before a groin injury knocked him out of play) will be back next year.
Russell Webb extended his record of most conversions made at the CRC with 20 more this weekend (out of 27 chances) to add to the previous 31. Webb also scored 4 tries himself for a total of 60 points to lead the team.
Bears had an emotional but brief celebration on the field after the final seconds of the championship match has ticked away and Webb kicked the ball out of bound. In the ensuing team huddle before they went to collect the trophies and medals, seniors such as Anthony Salaber addressed his teammates. Coach Clark was clearly emotional on the TV interview while talking about Robert Paylor and how Paylor’s courage was a big motivation for the team to come to Philadelphia and defend this title.
Finally, although there were no media members interviewing the players this year after the award ceremony on the field, Russell Webb sought me out to thank me (and I think it extends to the rest of the CGB community and readership) for the support. I congratulated him on his great Cal playing career, but should have also thanked him for his great job as a role model and representative of not just Cal Rugby but the entire university.
Best of luck to all the graduating Cal seniors - Connor Sweet, Drew Gaffney, and particularly the 3 5th year seniors - Russell Webb, Patrick Barrientes, Anthony Salaber who I have effectively seen grown up in the 5 years that I have covered the CRC in person. A few of them took a second to reflect and honor the rugby field and what this game has taught and reward them. Good luck to all of them in their future endeavors may it be in rugby, in business, or even to be a reality TV personality (yep, this guy played for Cal Rugby in the mid-2000’s).
Roll On You Bears!
With 3 more wins on Sunday, Cal Rugby has now won 31 straight CRC matches (and counting), across 6 years (back to the 2012 Bronze medal match victory over Life).
Cal Rugby has won 5 straight national championships (3 CRC and 2 Varsity Cup) and counting.
Cal Rugby has now won 33 national championships - 28 in rugby 15s and 5 in rugby 7s.
Since fall rugby 7s started 5.5 years ago (fall of 2012) - easily the biggest reason for Golden Bears’ CRC success, Cal Rugby has won 5 straight PAC 7s title. Bears were not undefeated in 7s this past fall (while mixing in plenty of new players), but they won the one that mattered the most - the PAC 7s on the Pac-12 Networks.