One, two, three. As the blue-and-gold clad rugby players line up in scrum formation, the numbers on their backs reflecting in the harsh sunlight, the front row assembles. Numbers one, two and three — Scott Walsh, Michael Bush and George Vrame — look up and lock eyes with their opposition. Steely eyed operators, Cal’s front row doesn’t blink. The players opposite them stare back, eyes watering, eyelids trembling as they vainly attempt to stare down the stony-faced Bears’ front row.
At the start of the scrum — a test of strength between the two teams — the Cal front row’s relentless gaze never ceases. Right then and there, the players have set the tone for the rest of the match. They’ve done it with no movement and no sound, in a mental battle against the players opposite them. Bush yells out, “Ready, ready! And now!,” and the ball is released into the delicate tangle of players.
The scrum is one of the most important moments in a rugby game — it determines who wins possession of the ball and, as a result, who comes out with the opportunity to score. A solid front row means a solid chance of winning. And over the course of the game, Walsh, Bush and Vrame win scrum after scrum, proving why the team continues to rely on them in tough matches.
But Cal’s success at the front row wasn’t always destined to be. When Walsh, Bush and Vrame started out, it wasn’t clear that they would end up playing together. Years ago, they weren’t expecting to play rugby for Cal at all.
Bush loved rugby in high school and, since his freshman year, had been part of the national championship-winning team at Jesuit High School in Carmichael, California. But while Bush was interested in pursuing rugby at the collegiate level, he hadn’t yet decided whether or not Cal was where he wanted to do it. Bush’s father, Al, says his son has always been committed to academics and athletics, never wanting to do less than his absolute best. While to Al Bush, Cal represented the perfect combination of the two, his son wasn’t convinced until Cal head coach Jack Clark approached him about playing on the team.
“You know, he wanted to go to another college, but I told him, ‘Michael, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,’ ” Al Bush said. “And he kind of looked at the different avenues and eventually said, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna go for it. I’m going for Cal.’ ”
While Bush had finally made the decision to join the Cal program after his senior year, his younger Jesuit teammate and future front-row player was deciding whether or not he wanted to play rugby at all.
George Vrame had joined the Jesuit rugby team, but he wasn’t exactly thrilled to be doing so. As a freshman, he followed in the footsteps of the other Jesuit football players, such as Bush, who played rugby as a way to stay in shape during the offseason. While Bush took an immediate liking to the sport, Vrame wasn’t quite so keen. In his sophomore year, Vrame dropped out of the rugby scene completely.
“Yeah, he didn’t like getting kicked in the head,” says Chris Vrame, George’s father. “So he said, ‘I don’t want to play this.’ ”
But in his junior year, a family friend who happened to be one of the Jesuit rugby coaches convinced Vrame to give it another go. Vrame agreed. Slowly, he began to develop an interest in the game, his competitive nature fostering an intense desire to succeed. Attending Cal’s rugby camp the summer of his junior year only solidified Vrame’s interest in pursuing the sport at the collegiate level.
Meanwhile, at De la Salle High School in Concord, California, Scott Walsh was pursuing his dreams of playing college football. It was at De la Salle where Walsh was first exposed to the values of discipline and hard work that would carry him through his transition into college rugby.
“One of my fondest memories is getting up at 5:30 to get ready for work and Scott would be sitting at his desk wrapped in a blanket, doing his homework because that’s about all the time he had,” says Walsh’s father, Chris Walsh. “He had the time management and the discipline and the understanding that academics came first, but that it could be complemented by sport.”
Despite being nominated as an all-state lineman, at only 6 feet and 225 pounds, Walsh wasn’t big enough to be seriously considered as a lineman by Division I college football programs. While football was the main focus in Walsh’s high school athletic career, he was also passionate about rugby, which he played along with football for all four years of high school.
When Walsh was still in high school, his father decided to bring his son to a Cal rugby game. The idea was to plant a seed early — to get his son interested in Cal’s academic and athletic programs. Walsh’s mother, Kathy, a Cal alumna, was familiar with the school’s academic excellence, while his father, Chris, who was a track and field coach for the Bears, knew how impressive their athletic program was, too. Walsh then decided to attend Cal’s rugby camp. Like Vrame, attending the camp was one of the key moments when Walsh decided that pursuing rugby at the collegiate level was what he really wanted to do.
For all three players, committing to Cal was the first step toward playing on the front row at one of the best rugby programs in the nation.
After losing national championships to Brigham Young University two years in a row, Cal saw its legacy as the top rugby team hanging by a thread. Cal rugby needed to shake things up. Bush, who joined the team as a flanker, was more than ready to continue on that trajectory, but the coaching staff had other plans in mind. He began working closely with assistant coaches Mike MacDonald and Tom Billups in order to master his newfound role as hooker on the front row.
Meanwhile, both Walsh and Vrame were seeing more time in the starting lineup. As they continued to build their skill sets and became the best guys in their respective positions, Clark started playing Walsh, Bush and Vrame in the front row together.
Clark’s expectations for the team at the start of the season were simple: Do the job well and keep improving for every game. The front row began developing consistency and honing its talent as a group. Before long, the team was off to a six-game winning streak to open the 2014-15 season. But in February, the winning streak was broken in a tense match against the University of British Columbia.
“I feel like that was a big wake-up call for us because a lot of us kind of rolled into that game thinking how, from prior experience, that we were a good team,” Bush says. “And that kind of opened our eyes to how much more work we needed to do to be where we wanted to be now.”
Now, as the Bears prepare to face off against BYU in the national championships, they will be relying on the front row to carry them through it. BYU will be the toughest team the Bears have met yet.
Fiercely competitive by nature, Walsh, Bush and Vrame are focused on the task ahead. After chasing BYU’s national championship title for the last two years, the three players want nothing more than to call themselves the best team in the country.
“Unless we can get our own banner up there and come back here in 20 years and see what we did, it’s unfinished business for us,” Bush says. “And I think it’s really important for us to leave our stamp on this long tradition.”
Whether or not the Bears win Saturday’s national championship game, the trio’s future at Cal remains bright. As leaders on the team, respected by underclassmen and graduating seniors alike, they are more than prepared to continue raising the bar. With all three players continuing on next year, Clark is confident that Cal’s legacy lies in good hands.
“I think that they have a chance to be one of the legendary front rows. I want to be careful not to get ahead of myself,” Clark says. “That’s a chance they have next year. I think this year if they can continue to better the front rows that they play against, that gives us a chance to be the top team in the nation.”
Jessi McDonald covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected].