Champion squad doesn’t just talk the talk

Covering the Cal rugby team this year, I’ve learned a lot of terminology — however incompletely.

I finally grasped the difference between a ruck and a scrum, even though I still can’t explain either term particularly well and always fall back on hand gestures to convey the meaning.

While I have been immersed into a whole new sport, the terms surrounding the game aren’t the ones that have shaped my experience covering Cal rugby. They’re probably not the ones I’ll remember 20 years from now.

Ironically, though, it’s the everyday words we use when discussing sports — leadership and mental toughness — that can be the hardest to define.

But make no mistake; coach Jack Clark doesn’t do buzz words. He doesn’t speak in abstractions. Every word he utters has a clear purpose and a precise definition.

For instance, leadership is “to make those around you be better and more productive,” in the words of co-captain Jason Law, who repeated the team’s mantra.

On a lot of teams, there is a core group of proclaimed leaders. They’re the ones that speak those impactful words to fire up their teammates in important moments.

On the Cal rugby team, leadership is asked of everyone. Yes, there are co-captains and vice co-captains, and they do take on important roles. From what I’ve seen, moments of leadership are often private exchanges between players or witnessing one player going above and beyond what is asked of him to give his best effort.

It’s a quiet word; it’s a simple, unheralded deed.

Mental toughness is my personal favorite of the team’s phrases. Clark’s program defines it as “the ability to focus on the next most important thing.”

To me, that’s the quintessential definition of the Cal rugby team this year.

The Bears have been dealt some dire circumstances that they would be justified to dwell upon.

Possibly losing varsity status was “disturbing” to everyone affiliated with the team, Clark said. While the team couldn’t always control its program’s future, the Bears decided to take into their own hands what would happen this season.

The team could have been melancholy over not having a home field, but it focused on turning its so-called “home” games into fundraisers for high school rugby. It sent a message that the Cal product was the same, regardless of where they played.

The distraction with the most potential to derail the team was quite possibly the loss of half of their training field, especially during postseason practices. The players took their half of a beat-up field and drilled as best they could in preparation for their stiffest competition of the year.

Those obstacles were labeled distractions, but the team rarely even discussed them.

Cal had quite possibly more thrown at it off the field than on the field this year, but the focus remained on the pitch.

At times, it seemed the only thing they could control was what happened on the field.

And that was enough to hoist another championship trophy.