In anticipation of Cal alumnus Danny Barrett making the USA men’s Olympic rugby team, we spoke with his former coach and Cal legend Jack Clark. Clark has coached Cal rugby for more than three decades and has brought an astounding 23 national championships back to Berkeley, including titles in both the 7s and 15s format this past season. He will be entering the Cal Hall of Fame in November, but first, he shot a little breeze with us.
The game of rugby will make its reintroduction into the Olympics on Saturday, marking the sport’s first time as a part of the Games since 1924. Quick backstory: In 1900, a Frenchman named Pierre de Coubertin — widely considered the “father of the modern Olympics” — introduced rugby to the International Olympic Committee (which he formed in 1894), and the sport was an event in four of the following six Olympics.
But soon, problems involving a sufficient number of competitive teams each year, coupled with fans storming the field after the gold medal game in 1924 would develop a negative stigma around the sport. When de Coubertin stepped down from power in 1925, the loudest pro-rugby voice was quieted. The IOC rejected rugby’s bid for the 1928 games in Amsterdam, and since then, the event hasn’t been back. Well, until now — in 2009 the IOC voted to include rugby in the 2016 Olympics.
“I think this is a real watershed moment,” Clark said. “I believe that the competition will be fantastic, and I think that NBC has an affinity for the sport at this point. The women have a chance for a medal, and the men have a chance for a medal, so I think there’s a great chance that there’ll be a lot of rugby in our living rooms over a six day period. It’s quite the footprint.”
In recent years, rugby has been growing on its own quite organically. With concussions and long-term injuries exponentially stunting the draw of football and big kids still wanting to run around and hit one another, rugby has found quite the niche in America as a more physically conscious alternative. Does Clark think these games will spur further popularity of the sport?
“There’s no doubt. I see the sport growing extremely rapidly right now, especially at the youth level and at the high school level. I think these games will be a real energizer moving forward.”
The official “Olympic” format of rugby is seven-a-side, which is actually quite different from the more traditional 15-a-side form. “7s,” as it’s referred to, consists of seven players for each team on the field, where the 14 total athletes play two seven-minute halves. This, compared to 15 players on each team playing for 80 total minutes, is a much more streamlined play style. 7s is usually much faster, and despite playing for less than one-fifth the time of a standard game, usually has a similar amount of scoring. This is mainly because both styles use the same field size, so with less than half as many players to stop attacks, much wider running and passing lanes open up.
While 15s is somewhat more “orthodox,” its physical demands make it inconceivable for a tournament environment. 7s provides teams a brief and exciting moment to prove their worth on a big stage and ensures that the cream rises to the metaphorical top in a timely manner.
“15-a-side rugby is like American football — it’s hard to play a game more than once a week or so,” Clark said. “We have a World Cup in 15s and it takes six weeks to play. 7s is a tournament game, and the games are very short, so it’s possible to play two or three games in a day for a tournament. That’s kind of what is has to be, in the Olympics you just can’t have a competition that drags on for even 14 days.”
Clark also spoke glowingly of his former pupil Danny Barrett, who he forecasts will help the Eagles protect their gold medal — America comes into the games as the technical incumbent champion after winning gold in 1924. For Clark, who also coached the U.S. national team for years, having such a recent player participating is a reminder of his still considerable impact on the team.
“We’re all just filled with pride. We’re of course pleased for Danny, and we’re also pleased to have Cal so well-represented in the Olympics,” Clark said.
Austin Isaacsohn is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].