LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Eighty minutes of hard-hitting rugby will decide which team is the best in the Bay when Saint Mary’s visits California Saturday, March 25. Of course, when the No. 2-ranked team in the Canterbury Top 20 faces the No. 4-ranked team in the country, not only is the distinction of the best team in the Bay Area on the line, but the working title of best team in the country might be associated with Saturday’s winner, as well.
Although Cal has its prestigious history on its side, Saint Mary’s slow climb to college rugby’s Mount Rushmore – which includes National Championship victories in 2014 and ’15 – has left the days of one-sided blowouts between the two East Bay Area schools long in their rearview mirrors.
“Any good team starts with a good coach, and the coaching they receive over there is some of the best in the country,” said Cal All-American center Anthony Salaber. “Couple that with a lot of good players they’ve been able to get over the years – heck, even my little cousin goes to Saint Mary’s.”
“We’re going to have to work in the face of adversity,” Salaber continued. “Saint Mary’s is a great ball club and they have really good skills, they’re really well trained, really well coached and they’re really fit… so this will probably be the hardest team we’ve played all year.”
They Gaels, who have to think back to 2014 to recollect the last time they got the best of the Bears, have only lost one game all season – to No. 3 BYU. The team has been in top form since the New Year, but still understands the difficulty of its next task.
“I think one of the things that makes Cal such a tough opponent is their organization and their discipline to that structure,” noted All-American fly half Michael McCarthy. “They are a team that rarely beats themselves, so you really have to earn what you get against them.”
While McCarthy’s All-American half back partner Holden Yungert agrees that the Bears are “extremely well drilled”, he points out the players executing the patterns of play are pretty darn good too.
“Cal has some of the most athletic players in college rugby across their lineup,” said Yungert. “One top of that, they have skilled playmakers and strong support runners.”
The previous fixture between the two schools was just over a year ago at Saint Mary’s Rugby Stadium where the Bears fought back from a 14-0 second-half deficit to outlast the Gaels, 27-14. A battle-tested Cal squad ought to be prepared to play a full 80 minutes again. After receiving back-to-back loses to the University of British Columbia as part of the two schools’ annual World Cup competition, the Bears responded by slamming UCLA, USC and Stanford by a combined 299-14 in just a five-day period.
“UCLA is a team that has given us problems in the past, but we came out and performed pretty well, and I think our team across the board played pretty well because we could see the standard was set in those UBC games,” Salaber said of Cal’s recent string of dominant performances.
Although Saint Mary’s B-side hosted a fixture last weekend, the Gaels’ A-side had a rare week off last week. In fact, Saint Mary’s last run out was March 11 in a losing effort on the road to BYU, 35-26, and you’d have to go back to March 4 when it picked up it last win – an impressive 52-point victory against No. 8 San Diego State. Even with the atypical time off between matches, Saint Mary’s hasn’t tweaked its training procedures over the last two weeks, and McCarthy says “it was basically business as usual for us.”
Any college rugby match pitting two of the country’s best is enough to create buzz, but what makes this annual fixture so unique is the close proximity between the two schools. Add the lively rugby culture of Northern California and you’ve got nothing short of a great college rugby rivalry.
“In some essence it’s a battle for the Bay,” Salaber coined. “There’s a little bit of bragging rights that comes with it, but we see these guys around. When we go shopping at Safeway we’ll see them there – we see them all around. So yeah, it’s nice to have that one-up on them, but I’m sure they’re looking to get the same thing.”
While a pair of Saint Mary’s backs didn’t go as far as labeling the yearly contest between two top-flight programs separated by a dozen miles a rivalry, tighthead prop Henry Hall didn’t back down from the claim.
“I won’t deny that this is a rivalry. This game is important,” Hall said. “In fact, most of us wish we could play a two-match series home-and-away like we do with BYU. When it comes down to it, we treat it like any other game. We focus on our roles since that is all we can control.”
Adding an additional spotlight to one of the most anticipated college rugby games of the year is the live broadcast production by the Pac-12 Network Bay Area. Pac-12 Networks aired the game between the Bears and Gaels in 2015, and this will be the network’s second broadcast of a Cal fixture in 2017 after its Feb. 18 match against University of British Columbia also received live regional coverage from the Pac-12.
Saturday’s match will kickoff at 5 p.m. PT and is also available to watch on pac-12.com and the Pac-12 Now app.