Cal's rugby squad faced more than rules change

Out of a lineout, California's Blaine Scully passes during a rugby sevens practice at Neumann University.
Out of a lineout, California's Blaine Scully passes during a rugby sevens practice at Neumann University. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 04, 2011

Imagine a college football team switching to arena football rules in the middle of a season and you will have a clue what it's like for 15-a-side college rugby squads switching to rugby sevens as they hit town for this weekend's USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships.

"It's a pretty difficult conversion, really," said University of California coach Jack Clark, in his 28th season at Berkeley. "Fifteen-a-side rugby is a pretty confrontational game; it's pretty vertical. You create space by going up the field, north and south. Seven-a-side is a lot more patient, looking for matchups where one guy can beat another guy. It's not complicated from a strategy and tactics standpoint."

The good news for the Golden Bears (and more bad news for the rest of the field): This has been a season of overcoming obstacles for Cal. The Bears' record didn't indicate it - they were 29-0 playing 15-a-side, culminating with a national title on May 21. But switching formats pales next to playing all your games on the road, or dealing with the possible loss of varsity status for your sport.

They hit the road this season because major renovations of Cal's athletic complex meant their 5,000-seat stadium, Witter Rugby Field, was unavailable for 2011 and 2012. That field, up on a spot called Strawberry Canyon, was a destination spot on campus on a Saturday afternoon. Cal didn't have that tremendous advantage this year.

"It would be disingenuous to say it wasn't a huge obstacle to overcome," Clark said. "I'm just amazed and grateful to our players. They never batted an eye and never said a word."

Maybe that's because it wasn't even their biggest obstacle in the last year. In the fall, Cal's athletic department announced sports cuts. Some sports were going to be gone completely. Rugby - the oldest intercollegiate sport on campus, in existence since 1882, winner of 19 of the last 21 national championships - was to be switched to some sort of nebulous and ill-defined "varsity club" status. Not exactly varsity, not quite club. Clark said he never sought to define the term. He worked to reverse the decision.

Amazingly, it happened, because Cal's rugby community raised "many millions," Clark said - more than $7 million, one rugby source said - and used the money not only to save rugby, but to keep the women's gymnastics and lacrosse teams. Those teams were needed to help rugby, so the participation numbers could line up to comply with Title IX regulations. This February, the school announced the restoration of all the sports on the cutting block.

"When you go through this type of stress, one of the good things is it mobilizes the community," Clark said.

"It seemed like a raising from the death almost," said Cal senior Blaine Scully. "A lot of men who came before us saved our program."

Maybe it's hard to gear up two weeks after winning the national title over Brigham Young, but Clark said this tournament helps promote the sport. Cal can do its part. "We're really thankful rugby has this type of PR," Clark said.

"It comes down to who can adjust the quickest," Scully said of the format change. "My team - I believe I have the best guys in the country in their ability to adapt to any sort of game and any sort of competition. It is unbelievable. Any time you put anything in front of them, they adjust."


Rugby Schedule

Here is the schedule for this weekend's USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships at PPL Park in Chester:

Saturday

MEN

 Louisiana State vs. Penn State, 9:58 a.m.

California vs. Ohio State, 10:20

Boston College vs. Notre Dame, 10:42

Dartmouth vs. Utah, 11:04

Navy vs. North Carolina, 11:26

Army vs. Central Washington, 11:48

Arizona vs. Temple, 12:10 p.m.

Oklahoma vs. Texas, 12:32

Ohio State vs. Penn State, 12:54

Dartmouth vs. Notre Dame, 1:16

Central Washington vs. Navy, 1:38

California vs. Louisiana State, 2:10

Boston College vs. Utah, 2:32

Army vs. North Carolina, 2:54

Temple vs. Texas, 3:16

Arizona vs. Oklahoma, 3:38

California vs. Penn State, 4:06

Notre Dame vs. Utah, 4:34

Army vs. Navy, 5:02

Arizona vs. Texas, 5:30

Louisiana State vs. Ohio State, 6:06

Boston College vs. Dartmouth, 6:34

Central Washington vs. North Carolina, 7:02

Oklahoma vs. Temple, 7:30

Sunday

Women's quarterfinal, 8:59 a.m.

Women's quarterfinal, 9:19

Women's quarterfinal, 9:39

Women's quarterfinal, 9:59

Men's championship quarterfinal, 10:19

Men's championship quarterfinal, 10:41

Men's championship quarterfinal, 11:03

Men's championship quarterfinal, 11:25

Men's challenger quarterfinal, 11:47

Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:09 p.m.

Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:31

Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:53

Women's semifinal, 1:15

Women's semifinal, 1:35

Men's championship semifinal, 2:05

Men's championship semifinal, 2:30

Men's challenger semifinal, 2:55

Men's challenger semifinal, 3:20

Women's final, 4

Men's bronze medal, 4:40

Men's challenger final, 5

Men's championship final, 5:20


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.

 

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