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Cal vs Life for rugby 15s national title Part II: Why 2019 will be different from 2018

Can the Golden Bears avenge for the 2018 final on Saturday?

Cal Rugby is ready to win another national championship.
Cal Athletics Twitter

Cal Bears. Life Running Eagles. Stevens Stadium in Santa Clara.

It’s the same two teams at the same venue in the 2019 D1A Rugby collegiate 15s championship final tomorrow (Saturday) as the 2018 edition, but the Cal Bears hope to a drastically different outcome.

The 2018 final turned into a rather forgettable 60-5 loss. The 2019 contest could be a very different contest.

After all, the Avengers movies that came out in 2018 and the one that came out in 2019 have drastically different endings.

Rightfully so, head Coach Jack Clark and associate head coach Tom Billups are credited as great molders of men. Cal Rugby graduates are ready to face all of life’s challenges.

Now, can current Cal Rugby players beat Life (University) on the pitch?

At stake is Cal Rugby’s 29th rugby 15s national championship. It will also be Cal Athletics’ 99th team national championship across all sports (including quite a number of non-NCAA national titles like this one), which brings us closer to that triple digit milestone.

Why things could be the same: Plenty of the same players (9 out of 15 starters) are back for both sides

The official Cal Bears dot com preview is probably the most comprehensive lists of the likely starters for both teams.

It won’t be a true revenge, if Life had a major roster turnover since last year. That’s one way to look at how the returning roster for Life is similar to last year.

Led by senior flyhalf Duncan Van Schalkwyk from South Africa, 2018 Championship Final MVP for scoring multiple tries and making most of the conversion and penalty kicks, Life Running Eagles should have 9 returning starters out of the 15 players from last year. They are Zimbabwean hooker Brian Muntanga, Scottish lock Jamie Berrisford, Daemon Torres - a 6-3, 240-pound senior try-scoring beast, Mike Islava - moving to flanker from lock, 6-2, 210-pound senior Justin Johnso, junior scrumhalf Ryan Rees, senior Harley Wheeler - moving to center from wings, and fifth-year Australian fullback Mitchell Wilson. It’s a very experienced and International group of players.

They are joined in the starting lineup by at least two more players who played last year as replacements in the 6-1, 225-pound South African Keagan Sparks and Argentine center Matthew Mairowitz. Rest of the starting lineup are filled with a couple of 5th year transfers and another more traditional grad transfer who should be quite physically mature.

For the Bears, they should be starting (almost) the same lineup as for the St. Mary’s College semifinal match last Saturday.

It’s a lineup with size and experience up front in senior Jack Iscaro, sophomore Jack Manzo and junior Damon Wiley. The second row of forwards will have senior captain Nic Mirhashem and some choices for the other positions although Sam Golla is a good bet after scoring a try in the semifinal. Bears have two freshmen in the pivotal 9 (halfback) and 10 (flyhalf) spots in Henry Poon and Sam Walsh (who also scored a try in addition to making al the kicks in the semifinal). There are plenty of experiences in the backline for the Bears with 3 juniors in Christian Dyer, Keanu Andrade, and last week’s game winning try scoring hero Sam Cusano, as well as senior Troy Lockyear to go alongside sophomore Marcus Shankland.

Compared to the 2018 starting lineup, 9 starters (same number as Life) are also back with a 10th 2018 starter (Ben Casey) also likely to contribute important minutes. You would think that the Golden Bears are motivated all year long in trainings by what happened an year ago.

Why things could be different: Looking at the 2019 season results, margin of victories favor the Bears.

Cal (18-1) have beaten everyone not named SMC or University of British Columbia resoundingly in 2019; the Bears also found ways to beat SMC twice and UBC at home. By comparison, the 2018 version of the Bears lost to SMC in the regular season and had some issues in putting away a good but perhaps not great Army team during homecoming weekend. Without numbers to back me up, I will say that Cal Bears have minimized mistakes in 2019 to improve as a side, based partly on reports from other Cal fans. The Cal goal line defense was really impressive last weekend against SMC, even if they did eventually yielded a go-ahead try to the Gaels.

In my preview last week, I strongly implied that that semifinal match between Cal and SMC may be the de facto championship final, I still believe that.

Despite a lot of the same players (which was a bit of a surprised to me), Life (10-0) were strongly challenged by Lindenwood in the semifinal before winning 27-19 in a much closer match than what the final score says. Although they are in their 7th straight D1A Rugby championships (remember that Cal and BYU only returned to this competition last year after the Varsity Cup has folded), Life also trailed Navy at the half of the quarterfinals. It may be a sign of the rise of rugby in the East or (if you’re a more optimistic Cal fan like me) the vulnerability of Life in 2019 that they only edged Navy (ranked 5th) by one in the regular season or allowed Lindenwood (ranked 6th) and even Penn State (ranked 9th) to hang around until the second half in the regular season and postseason matches. The counterargument here, of course, is that Life has had the knack of 2nd half comeback this season...but they really should not be trailing at the half in the first place.

In fact, a few FloRugby and/or D1ARugby articles recapping Life’s matches have repeated mentioned how the Running Eagles have made a lot of mistakes despite obvious physical advantages in their matches this season. In a rather technical game that is rugby, Life not being crisp in their passing or smart in their decision making can certainly doom them, particularly against a greatly improved side like the Cal Bears in this championship final.

Cal fans should cherish the chance to see a potential national title right in the Bay Area. You can still buy ticket here. For the rest of us who no long live in the Bay Area, we will just watch the action on CBS Sports Network or online (after spending $12.50) on FloRugby.

Tune in tomorrow. Same bat-time (6 pm PT) and same bat-channel (CBS Sports Network for those watching on TV) for the same two teams at the same venue as last year! Hopefully a different squad will be lifting the trophy at the end.