St. Mary's and Cal go at it this weekend in Berkeley and as always this is a matchup if great interest.
Despite this being now a non-league game (last year was the first in many, perhaps ever, that was simply a friendly) this game matters. They are the two best teams in Northern California, usually the two best on the Pacific Coast, and sometimes the two best in the country.
Cal dominates the all-time series, but St. Mary's won the game last year, and were especially impressive in the scrum. This year, Cal has ramped up their game a notch or two (or five), but they should still respect a stern test from the Gaels.
"It'll be a great game," said Cal Head Coach Jack Clark. "We think they're a very well coached team. Tim and Johnny do a great job with them, and we have a history with them. The Gaels have some really dynamic players and a playing style that allows them to be, from time to time, pretty lethal. They can bang in long-distance tries and they don't need to bang it out for long periods of time. They are adventurous with the ball and the next thing you know a really fast, athletic guy has the ball in some space."
That is exactly what St. Mary's did against Central Washington last week. In a game where CWU led 13-7 in the first half, the Gaels decided to press their advantage at every opportunity. The result was a 50-20 win.
Cal, meanwhile, were idle last week. Their last game was a 59-21 defeat of a big, tough Utah team, the last game for the Utes before they were hit with a suspension.
St. Mary's Head Coach Tim O'Brien, who, with Johnny Everett has produced one of the few programs that faces Cal with no fear, says this game, friendly or no, is crucial.
"This is an excellent opportunity for us to play a really, really tough opponent," O'Brien told RUGBYMag.com. "Playing at Cal will be a huge challenge, but it will be a heck of a game. It always is."
O'Brien said he has been trying to test his players, and it seems he is still looking for that game, considering how the Central Washington game turned out, at least in the second half.
"We look at our team in 2008 (when they lost to Cal in the national semis 41-31 in a back-and-forth classic), and that year we got better and better with each game. We're looking to do that again."
Cal has looked almost unstoppable, so maybe this is the test St. Mary's needs. Cal has dominated most opponents, and especially on defense. Utah scoring 29 on them, and being down only 22-17 at halftime, was perhaps a bit of a shock, but still they won by 22.
Clark certainly wants his team to be tested, too.
"We're really happy that he have St. Mary's here in our neck of the woods and that we get to play them on an annual basis," he said. "I am sure we'll get a full crowd - we'll sell out - and it's be a great game and a great day. We lost to them last year and we've had some close games in the past. The rivalry has not been all one-way traffic, and we always have a lot of respect for them."