Backs Take Front Seat for Bears

Photo: Colin Hawley is one of several returning All-America backs for the Cal rugby team, which lost numerous forwards to graduation.
Victoria Chow/File
Colin Hawley is one of several returning All-America backs for the Cal rugby team, which lost numerous forwards to graduation.

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Cal Rugby Season Preview

Gabriel Baumgaertner provides an outlook on the Bears' campaign.

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The goal always remains the same, but one would think that the Cal rugby team might be playing just a little bit harder this year.

For the first time in six seasons, the Bears are not defending national champions after losing to Brigham Young in last year's final.

Having outscored its opponents 501-9 in its first nine games, Cal looks like its usual dominant self, but the team knows that tremendous strides must be made before it considers itself a national title favorite.

In short, don't get caught up in the gaudy numbers.

"All those scores from UCLA flattered us a little bit," coach Jack Clark said. "There were some patches where we didn't play very well. We didn't play within our patterns of play or our systems. Sometimes we just out-athleted those teams, we didn't play better rugby than they did and that's a concern."

The Bears' biggest strength is their back line. All-American fullback Ryan Taylor has since graduated, but the rest of last year's starting back line returns.

Anchored by returning All-Americans Keegan Engelbrecht, Colin Hawley, Blaine Scully and Dustin Muhn, Cal possesses arguably the strongest, most experienced back line in collegiate rugby. Scrumhalf Andrew Mase and fullback James Bailes also return to the starting lineup.

"We've got a good set of backs," Clark said. "We've even got a couple of younger guys that will provide a bit of a cover. But somebody has got to win the ball for them, and that is the worry ... We'll have to hope that in the games we live on scraps for possession that the backs are accurate and precise."

After a 152-0 drubbing of Humboldt State, Clark said "the backs played well, the forwards, not as much."

If experience is a determining factor, then Clark's assessment may become a trend as the season goes forward.

Eleven players graduated from last year's front line, including three All-Americans. James Besser is the only returning starter from the front.

"There just aren't any guys, especially in the forwards unit, that are proven," Clark said. "We've got a couple of returning starters, but they have a lot to prove. They weren't the best players in the forward unit last year. Then we have a bunch of players that were on the reserve team last year and they're pushing for minutes on the varsity."

Questions abound about how the inexperienced front line will fare against tougher squads like British Columbia and St. Mary's, but the new starters have effectively filled the void thus far.

"We still have a long way to go," eightman Derek Asbun said. "Unfortunately, we haven't had anybody really test us that much. Hopefully we'll get some good matches coming up in Vegas so we can prepare for UBC."

Cal has virtually established itself as the title favorite coming into any season because of its rich rugby tradition, but Clark believes that this team needs to make tremendous strides before he feels that they are a contender.

"We're going to have to establish that we're an improving team," Clark said. "I really do believe that there are two kinds of teams-the teams that are getting better and those that aren't. We've got to put a stake in the ground that we are indeed an improving team."


Contact Gabriel Baumgaertner at [email protected]

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