Bears to Travel Rugged Road to National Championship

Photo: Sean Gallinger (center) and the rest of the Cal rugby team will be playing its last season as a varsity sport as it vies for another title.
Skyler Reid/File
Sean Gallinger (center) and the rest of the Cal rugby team will be playing its last season as a varsity sport as it vies for another title.

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The Cal rugby team may not be losing its varsity status this season, but it faces many challenges in its quest to repeat as national champions.

As announced at a September press conference, the Athletic Department will cut the rugby team from varsity sports after this season. Unlike the other slashed sports, rugby will remain on campus as a varsity club sport and continue to compete in the same league representing Cal.

How the looming demotion will impact this season has yet to be seen.

"I can't imagine it will be helpful," coach Jack Clark said. "I feel very sympathetic toward our players You can be a victim of your situation, or put your shoulders back and get on with it."

Co-captain and standout wing Blaine Scully said news of the demotion has given the team "added incentive" to go out with another championship.

As Clark and alumni rally to get rugby reinstated as a varsity sport, the Bears are focusing on what they can control - their performance on the pitch. But it won't be the same pitch on which Cal has built its championship pedigree.

For the next two seasons, the Bears will be without a home field since the newly installed turf at Witter Rugby Field has been deemed unsafe for competition.

Instead, the rugby faithful will trek to Treasure Island in San Francisco to watch Cal, though Clark refuses to deem them "home" games. To date, only two have been officially announced - this Saturday's contest against Chico State at the Gaelic Athletic Association and a mid-February tilt against British Columbia at the San Francisco Golden Gate RFC.

When the Bears are in Berkeley, Witter is not at their disposal. With the football spring training and the lacrosse practices and matches taking place on the field, the rugby team must share time allocated for practice.

This results in an inconsistent team training time, which oscillates from early in the morning to late at night to their regular mid-afternoon slot.

"We're not going to let it affect us," Scully said. "We still have the same top-notch coaches, top-notch training For us to make excuses would be wrong."

Not all of the changes relate to the state of Cal athletics - some pertain to a rising prominence of the sport.

Intercollegiate rugby has reshuffled its structure, creating a new division termed the College Premier League, which is a rung above Division I. It is divided into regions, with the Bears competing in the Pacific along with St. Mary's, San Diego State and UC Davis.

"That means we're going to have tougher matches," co-captain Derek Asbun said. "We're excited to test ourselves We welcome the challenge."

The Bears lose former co-captains and All-Americans Keegan Engelbrecht, Eric Fry and Colin Hawley, but return the championship front row and back row. However, the more significant obstacles to overcome in order to defend their title may not be the personnel changes on the field, but the distractions off it.


Christina Jones covers rugby. Contact her at [email protected]

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