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EIRA Player of the Week - Anthony Salaber

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EIRA Player of the Week - Anthony Salaber

Colleen McCloskey photo.

The figure of Anthony Salaber has always been a little bit of a weird one.

At 6-5, even in high school he looked like a lock, striding in that long stride of his, looking more like an elk eating up ground with a loping stride than a jackrabbit scampering, zig-zaggedly through the underbrush.

As the captain of the champion Dixon HS team in Northern California, and then with the HS All Americans, he also rose above the rest in other ways. Tall, sure, but steadfast, unselfish, smart, and also very raw.

That’s how this writer remembers Salaber way back in the dark ages of 2011 and 2012. Now, as Salaber helped lead Cal to a Varsity Cup victory that no one - really, no one - expected them to win, and a CRC victory that was more in the cards, but unexpected in its emphatic nature, we see a rugby player who has honed his craft, at the center of still the best college rugby team in the country.

Salaber matriculated at Cal perhaps in part because he was part of a Cal family. His father, and HS coach, Rob, played rugby at Cal. His brother, Nick, was on the Cal Bears rugby team that Anthony joined.

But in doing so he knew he wasn’t going to waltz onto the starting lineup. He might have been Rugby Magazine’s HS Player of the Year, but he was joining Cal, after all, and unless your name was Seamus Kelly or Mike MacDonald, the chances of starting much as a freshman were slim to none.

Salaber knew that, and embraced the challenge.

“I knew coming into Cal that my game was far from perfect,” Salaber told Goff Rugby Report. “It’s a huge mentality change to go from high school to college. I feel like I followed the track that I probably should have. I sat back and watched the way that Seamus Kelly played. I was a center like him. To see the skill and dedication and preparation that went into every one of his practices was huge for my game. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

But even so there was a lot to learn. Salaber said he was ready to “hold the clipboard” like a backup quarterback. 

You still want to have that competition and play, though, and Salaber, like a lot of young Cal players, was on the reserve grade squad, which almost never loses and usually thumps their opponents quite seriously. (Head Coach Jack Clark will also often run a young squad out as the 1st-grade squad, and tells them, they’re Cal for that day, not the reserves.)

But winning big, even as a reserve-squad member, is a test unto itself, said Salaber.

“There’s an interesting parallel between playing for the reserves and being on a multiple-championship squad,” he said. “You can’t worry about the opposition. The only thing you can control is how your team is playing. It’s actually a good lesson in avoiding those mental lapses. One of our mottos is Constant Performance Improvement. You can only focus on your game and your teammates around you. I would have it no other way.”

Now as a starter, center, and leader for Cal, Salaber still treasures those lessons. Ready to return for his final season next year, Salaber is a stronger 6-5 center, with a better sidestep and better hands than he had four years ago, and still plenty of championship desire.

But he needed to improve. He really was like a big deer, with the long legs and big body but still struggling with full control. (Compare that to his HSAA teammate in the backs, Nu’u Aiava, who was 5-7 and could change direction like a tiny spider escaping a broom - “we were like polar opposites,” said Salaber.) Now, Salaber is smooth on his feet, running on top of the ground, not thumping into it, and he makes tacklers miss - those fortunate enough not to get run over.

“Coach Billups is an incredible coach to those minute details like body position and footwork. He’s really helped me improve my game in that regard.”

In the CRC final, Cal were tactically superior and that’s why they dominated. Salaber, being tall and well as fleet of foot, was a 7s weapon for the HS All Americans, and showed a wide range of skills at the CRC. 

“Every one of us has a specific role,” he said. “It is my combination of speed and height that allows me to be an asset, especially during those kickoffs. Because, man, if you’ve got the ball in 7s it’s a lot harder on the opposition. That was part of our game plan. And I love being able to play that position for my team, and it’s a fun skill to have on the kickoffs. But it’s also a really tough skill to learn and it’s taken me three years to get it down. And I know there’s room for improvement.”

Like what?

“One of the things I’ve improved on is primary phase play and knowledge of the structure of the game. We’ve got great coaches here to help me. I’ve been able to grow into my body a little bit more. The weight training program we have here has helped develop me as an athlete, and then I can have those athletic moments. And the ability to understand the game, and know when to interject yourself. It’s a broad growth of rugby knowledge.”

In the end, there’s the task of assembling the athlete, and then tightening the nuts and bolts and sending him out into the world, and there’s the learning, the classroom work, the film study. And finally, there are things you can unleash, but you can’t really teach. A player, a team, has to have resolve. The great criticism over the years of Cal was that the players won so much they didn’t have resolve - conveniently forgetting the example of MacDonald, Lou Stanfill, or someone like Colin Hawley coughing up blood after a 7s game and going back for another game an hour or so later.

Cal certainly had their resolve tested this year, down 29-19 to BYU in the Varsity Cup with ten minutes to go. Somehow they scored three tries to win, and Salaber was in the middle of it all.

“Our whole game plan was the entire time was ‘get us to the last 20 minutes,’” Salaber said. “Survive until halftime, and then get us to the last 20 minutes. Because the year before we came back and we were driving on that last play, and we lost it. Once our forwards started to roll, it was a huge momentum shift. It did everything to take the sorriness away from your legs. We all knew what we had to get done. It was the guys collectively getting the feeling. Russell [Webb] kicking the ball downfield and tackling the guy out of bounds. That does wonders for everyone.

“I think Coach Clark has said this a thousand times, that the definition of leadership is making those around you better and more productive. That doesn’t just fall on a few; that falls on the entire team. Next year, us 5th-years and older guys will have a big roll in re-integrating this team into a championship mentality, but it could also be a freshman who can help lead out on the field. It can be anyone.”

Well, we think it was a lot Anthony Salaber, who is our Eagle Impact Rugby Academy Player of the Week.