It should. The Bears and Cougars have played one another in the title game eight of the last nine years, and it has turned into quite a confrontation.
Early on things went Cal’s way as the Bears won the first three matchups and five of the first six. But after missing the championship game entirely in 2012, Cal has fallen to BYU the last two years.
In 2013 BYU won 27-24 on a drop goal (rare three-point kick) in the final seconds of regulation. Last year the Cougars had an easier time of it, winning 43-33. Returning all but two players from that team they rolled to a 13-0 record this year and will be favorites on Saturday at Rio Tinto Stadium near Salt Lake City.
“They’ve been awfully good lately,” said Cal’s long-time coach Jack Clark. “They’re well-coached they have a bit of a team culture, but what they really have is some pretty extraordinary talent. It’s bit of a United Nations out there. They’ve got Kiwis, South Africans, Fijians, Samoans, Tongans. It’s quite a collection of really gifted rugby players. And some of them are, shall we say, mature. Some are in their 20s and some are in their late 20s.”
That international contingent has been artfully managed by coach Dave Smyth, who is going for his fourth straight national title.
“They ask a lot of questions of you,” was one way Clark described the Cougars. “Even if you get it right and you’ve got a defense in front of them, there is a really big, talented athlete running at you, and it’s going to be hard to get him on the ground.”
Clark said the strength of BYU is in the backfield. “It is really about some extraordinary athletes, some extraordinary ball carriers,” he said. “I think their forwards are good. They have one very good player in the back row (Kyle Sumsion) who’s a national team player. But they can rally carry the rock. They’ve got good little playmakers, the South African (scrumhalf Luke Mocke) and Kiwki (flyhalf Jonny Linehan) and they’re giving them the ball.
“They’re just good, They are strong guys, they’re very evasive. That’s the strength.”
The Bears (17-1) are not too shabby themselves. Their one loss was to traditional rugby rival University of British Columbia early in the year and they avenged that later with a victory in Vancouver.
“We might not be great in any one thing, but we can do all the components of the game pretty well, it’s a pretty balanced team,” Clark said. “The forwards can win (the) ball, they can contribute around the field. They run well, their hands are good, their instincts of the game are good And we have a lot of run, pass, kick options with the backs. They bring a complete skill set to the game. A pretty well balanced team.”
The Bears return most of the players from a year ago, the key loss being Seamus Kelly, a four-time All-American at a center spot. Clark has done some lineup shuffling as he looked for effective combinations. “We want to make sure that our approach to the game uses what the guys do well. It’s not a philosophical pursuit, ‘How I want to play’, it’s ‘How can we play successfully.’
“As the season’s gone on we’ve moved the pieces around a little bit. How do you take advantage of a guy with a booming left foot? how do you take a guy who’s maybe not the greatest tackler, maybe you hide him a little bit? You put guys in position to be successful. As the season’s gone on we’ve gotten in position to know ourselves better. We have developed an approach to the game that’s our best approach. That’s always the way it is but this year in particular, we’re doing a little bit more of that, kind of mixing and matching.”
Two pieces that did were constant and didn’t require “mixing and matching” were senior co-captains Jake Anderson and Alec Gletzer. Anderson, a fullback, is one of the more accomplished kickers on the Cal squad in addition to being a versatile all-around player.
“Jake’s generally known for his outstanding ball skills and tactical rugby knowledge,” assistant coach Tom Billups told Cal Athletics. “But what many outside the team tent wouldn’t fully appreciate is his toughness.”
Gletzer is a flanker, who did not begin playing rugby until he enrolled as a freshman at Santa Barbara City College. He transferred to Cal the next year. “Alec is clearly among the elite players in college rugby,” Clar told the Cal Sports Quarterly. “But among that segment of elite players his rugby is still pretty raw. It indicates to me a significant upside from there.”
Gletzer believes the whole team has an upside as yet unexplored. “Every season we have a meeting, goals we want to talk about,” Gletzer said this week. “One always is that we’ve got to keep getting better every game. I don’t think we’ve reached our ceiling. I don’t think we’ve played our best game of the season yet.”
They will need to Saturday. “They (BYU) have got some big physical athletic guys who’ve been there a few years,” Anderson said, echoing his coach’s sentiments about the Cougars. “They’ve got some international players and coupling that with guys that run hard, tackle hard, makes them pretty dangerous cocktail. We’ll have our hands full for sure.”
“They are very good with their set pieces,” Gletzer said.
For the rugby novice, the term “set pieces” seems an anachronism. What appears to the untrained eye to be chaos and mayhem, actually involves some planning and orchestration. The scrum is in the eye of the beholder.
“There are plays, there are strategies, Gletzer said. But he added that improvisation also figures in and that is one of the elements that drew him to rugby in the first place. “There are no timeouts there are a lot of on-field decisions made by the players, 20-year-old guys coming together and having a plan together and going ahead with it. . …Things go wrong and you have to figure it out as you go.”
And Cal is figuring it out. “We are a pretty dangerous attacking team,” Anderson said. “We can score a lot of points (157 in the two championship tournament games to date). We’ve got some good attackers on the outsidede. We have a good outside center (Harry Adolphus), and if we can get to the corner and get some points on the board we will have a good chance.”
Clark is also cautiously optimistic.”A year ago we were steep underdogs and it was very much a ten-point (difference) game. But this year we’re a little bit better put together. We’ve lost Seamus Kelly and two other All- Americans Tiann DeNysschen and Josh Tucker). If you lose the best player in college rugby and you think you’re better, maybe that’s just me being delusional. But I think we are a tad better than we were a year ago. That’s why we all have some confidence, if. … It is going to take one of those ‘You got it right’ efforts, but I think we can do it.”
-Counting all games Cal is 10-3 against BYU.
-After this game Cal returns to the field for the 7-man championships, which conclude May 30-31 in Philadelphia. Sevens is the form of rugby that will be used in the Olympics. The Bears are two-time defending national champions.
-BYU beat UCLA 45-16 in Los Angeles and Central Washington 45-8 in Provo to earn its match against Cal.
-In 2012, the year Cal did not make the championship final, BYU defeated Arkansas State for the championship.
-The game will be televised live Saturday at 1 pm on the NBC Sports Network.