Cal will be going for an unprecedented sweep of the national rugby titles when the Bears travel to the Philadelphia area for the Rugby 7s Penn Mutual Collegiate Rugby Championship (CRC) Saturday and Sunday.
The seven-a-side rugby, played at a much faster pace in every respect than the traditional 15s game, is the form that will be used this summer when the sport makes its return to the Olympics after an absence of almost a century.
The Bears, who won the national 15s title at the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup last month, are three-time defending champs in the national 7s. No one has ever won both titles back-to-back. It makes for a quick turnaround.
“Sevens require different instincts, different skill sets,” Cal coach Jack Clark said as he prepared his squad for the upcoming tournament. “So we are just trying to refresh some lessons and expand on some others.”
In October and November Cal played 17 games of 7s, a schedule that consisted of three tournaments, one in San Luis Obispo, two in Berkeley. The Bears won all 17 games, some by wide margins, so 7s is not something they haven’t done. They just haven’t done it in a while.
“I think the boys are doing mostly well,” Clark said. “Emotionally they came off a pretty good high. …Some of the 7s work we’ve been doing is to kind of recondition their energy system. Your fitness has to be different. It’s just a different requirement. We’ve had to work ‘em really hard. Right when they’ve got very little to give, we’ve had to push ‘em through a lot of work.”
But the Bears certainly are ready for it, and have been ever since they upset BYU in the Varsity Cup. “About 15 minutes after the game we started talking about the CRCs, wanted to make that clean sweep, do something Cal or any team has never done before,” said Cal’s Anthony Salaber. “It is definitely difficult to come down from an exciting moment like that. Top of the world, top of the world and then, boom, you’ve got to start competing to get back on top again.
“It certainly is an interesting feeling, one that I haven’t experienced since I’ve been here at Cal, but it’s somethning I think we’ve taken on really well. If anything it’s motivated us to say that we want to be the best that’s ever been.”
Unlike 15s rugby, which is played in 40 minute halves, 7s goes lickety-split, two seven-minute halves surround a two-minute break.
At the CRC the 24 teams are divided into six pools of four teams each. On Saturday everybody plays three games in a round robin within their pool. The four pool winners and the two best second-place finishers (tie-breaker is goal differential) are seeded into the quarterfinals for Sunday’s knockout rounds. . If they go all the way to the championship game, the Bears will play six games in two days.
The Bears are in Pool A with Arkansas State, third in the CRC last year, Maryland and Tennessee. The Bears are 1-0 against the latter two, but lost to Arkansas State in 2012, their last meeting.
“Arkansas State is very good,” Clark said. “They have a very high contingent of foreign players. They’re a real nice team, they’re well-coached. Our pool is not exactly a favorable pool in some ways. All the pools have a good team in them, or a couple of good teams. I think we’ve got three good teams.”
While most of the rules are the same in 15s and 7s, the games are remarkably different.
“The 15s is a very confrontational game. In order to create space you need to consolidate the defense in front, you need to engage it or 15 guys take all the space away,” Clark said. “There is space in 7s, it’s always there. So if you are running into people you’re off the plan. It’s more about your line speed, and attack and defense.
“The keys to the game are you’ve got to win your restarts, because there’s a bunch of them. Possession is very important. You’ve got to play pretty clean in your handling. And then you’ve got to tackle. Those are the main components to the game.”
“Sevens is a totally different game,” said Salaber. “Transferring what the coaches call our energy systems from 15s to 7s is totally different. From being able to run 80 minutes to being able to run 14, it’s got to change everything.
“So it’s just sprinting, sprinting, sprinting until you finally get a little break. Definitely it takes about a week or two to transfer over to that kind of game. Physically we’re all holding up well. We’ve transferred over with the circuits we’ve been running really well.”
Salaber grew up in a rugby family, his father played at Cal and coached both him and his older brother Nick (a fifth year senior rugger at Cal) in high school. Anthony likes all forms of the sport, but reluctantly he admitted an ever-so-slight preference for 7s.
“Number one just because of the rising popularity of the game and the fact that it’s going to be in the Olympics and it’s so fast, so fun and so much space to run,” he said. “The best thing is it’s so easy to understand. People who never heard of rugby can watch a 7s game and get the basics. You can’t pass it (the ball), you can’t blah, blah, blah and it’s just a lot of fun to watch.”
And Salaber stands out on the field not only for his abilities. At 6-5 he literally is head and shoulders above most players in the 7s game.
“I’m a big tall unit, and you aren’t going to find a lot of that out on the 7s. Usually 7s is a small guys’ game but one of the advantages here in Berkeley is that we have a lot of big guys who can move….and that is going to be our biggest advantage because one of the biggest things in 7s is getting back those kickoff receptions. And that is something we do really well because we have three guys over 6-3 who just jump up and bat the ball right back to us.”
Given all they put into finally erasing their BYU demons in the Varsity Cup (Cal had lost to the Cougars in three straight finals before this year), the Bears could be forgiven if they didn’t put the same emphasis on the CRC. But Clark said his team is all in, fatigued or no.
“We take it real seriously. It’s been really special for us the last three years to win this tournament,” he said. “We put a lot of resources and time into our 7s, in the autumn especially. When you put that much time into something you want some reward. We’re on fumes, no doubt about it, but we want to go and we want to play to win.”
· BYU does not participate in the CRC because the school won’t allow its teams to play on Sunday for religious reasons.
· UCLA, Arizona and Utah are other Pac-12 schools in the tournament.
· Besides Cal and Arkansas State, other title favorites are Life University, Kutztown (CRC finalist the last two years) and Utah.
· On both days matches will be televised on NBCSN (11 a.m. – 1 p.m. PDT) and NBC (1 p.m. – 3 p.m.).
· The CRC winner receives the Pete Dawkins Trophy, named for the 1958 Heisman Trophy winner who was also a rugby star at Army before becoming a Rhodes Scholar and Brigadier General. Both Army and Navy have teams in the tournament.
· Rugby was last played in the Olympics in 1924 in Paris, with the U.S. repeating as gold medalists. Eight players from those teams were Golden Bears.