Cal waits amid major changes to college rugby

Cal Men's Rugby vs UBC
Carli Baker/File

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series explaining what postseason path lies ahead for the Cal rugby team.

A month before the regular season even started, Cal knew it would not be able to defend its 2011 national championship.

The team, unhappy with the postseason scheduling, had withdrawn from the newly formed USA Rugby Premier Division — just seven months after beating BYU to win the league’s first ever national championship — making the squad ineligible to compete in this year’s postseason tournament.

The Bears were not alone in their dissatisfaction with the league, as Ivy League champion Dartmouth and SEC powerhouses LSU and Tennessee also withdrew. The long-term stability of the league is very much in question, and major changes for collegiate rugby could be on the horizon.

It will be hard for the Premier Division to consider itself elite without having one of the most storied programs in the history of collegiate rugby as a participant.

“With Cal’s history, we’d be better off with Cal in it for sure,” said BYU coach David Smyth, whose team is considered a favorite to win the Premier Division this year. “Things are up in the air somewhat, and we’re waiting for USA Rugby to show some leadership and help us to get where we need to go.”

Regardless, the Cal players understood the decision and were willing to just move forward.

“I trusted coach (Jack Clark), and he’s really good at knowing what the team needs and where it needs to go in the future,” said freshman Andrew Battaglia. “All of us trusted him, and from there we were okay with it.”

The squad would later be ruled ineligible for the old D-1 championship tournament given its recent affiliation with the Premier Division, leaving it without any viable 15-player postseason.

Cal still took home some hardware — the Scrum Axe from Stanford and the World Cup from British Columbia — but was essentially only playing for pride.

“What people look to do is to play for each other on the team, and play for that Blue and Gold,” said junior Seamus Kelly. “Playing for Cal and playing for each other is more important than playing for any medal or any championship.”

However, the lack of a traditional 15s postseason presents the squad with an opportunity that it has never had before — a chance to adequately prepare for the Collegiate Rugby Championship, a National 7-player tournament in June.

The Bears are far from the only team in America shifting its focus to 7s rugby. Partly due to the inclusion of 7s rugby in the Olympics starting in 2016, both 15s and 7s are beginning to be considered legitimate and relevant.

Sevens rugby is a much faster version of its 15s counterpart and will likely have more appeal to the casual fan.

“I think while most rugby traditionalists might prefer the deeper tactical elements of the 15s game, there are a lot of aspects of 7s that I think will help it thrive quickly  in the U.S.,” said Stanford coach Matt Sherman. “It’s easier to learn and understand, and it’s more commercially friendly and entertaining to watch for the casual spectator.”

Despite being a traditional 15s powerhouse and having little history with 7s play, the Cal rugby team is fully incorporating the shift.

However, the Bears are still staying committed to 15s and will look to compete for a national championship again in 2013. The squad is waiting to see if the Premier Division dissolves — which is more than possible — and from there will evaluate what its best options are for 2013.

But the team is wasting no time incorporating more of a focus on 7s for the future. Starting later this year, Cal will turn the fall into a purely 7s portion of its season, looking to play in three or four tournaments for somewhere between 12 and 24 matches.

“We have a strong tradition of 15s, and we’re still committed to the 15s game, but we’re going to build a 7s program here at Cal,” said coach Jack Clark. “We have a ways to go in order to be a good 7s team, and we acknowledge that.”