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Cal favored to make history at Collegiate Rugby Championship

Collegiate Rugby Championship Invitational - Day Two

CHESTER, PA - JUNE 01: Players from California celebrate their win over Kutztown after the Championship Final at the Collegiate Rugby Championship Invitational at PPL Park on June 1, 2014 in Chester, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Larry French/Getty Images)

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The University of California eyes an unprecedented third straight Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) title in Philadelphia this weekend, live on NBC, NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra.

“Cal’s going to be the favorite,” said NBC Sports rugby sevens analyst Brian Hightower, a former U.S. National Team captain. “I think they’ve actually got a stronger team this year than they did last year. They’re so deep, and in my opinion that’s the reason why they’ve won this tournament back to back is because they can go to their bench and pick somebody who can offer quality time.”

NBC will have coverage Saturday from 3-4:30 p.m. ET, followed by NBCSN from 4:30-6. On Sunday, NBCSN will broadcast from 2-4 and NBC from 4-6, including the championship game. Live Extra will stream all of the NBC and NBCSN broadcasts.

In 2014, Cal defeated Kutztown 24-21 in the CRC title game, after beating Life University 19-17 in the 2013 final.

Cal, Kutztown and Life are among 20 schools split into five groups that will play round-robin games Saturday (games consist of seven-minute halves and a two-minute halftime). The five group winners plus the top three second-place teams advance to the championship knockout rounds Sunday.

Cal will be without injured stalwart Russell Webb, who played on the 2013 and 2014 championship teams and ranks third on the school’s career sevens appearances list.

Rugby sevens makes its Olympic debut in Rio de Janeiro next year. The U.S. men’s and women’s national teams will try to clinch Olympic berths at continental tournaments in Cary, N.C., in June.

That means that 2011 and 2012 champion Dartmouth will miss star Madison Hughes at the Collegiate Rugby Championship, as he is part of the U.S. player pool focused on Olympic qualifying. He’s not the only CRC alum to graduate to national team duty.

“Based on the track record, you have to look at this tournament if you’re going to pluck some American players off the sevens pitch and put them in the national team pipeline,” Hightower said. “There’s no better place than here.”

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