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rugby players practicing Mike MacDonald (forehead against sled ) and the other rugby Golden Bears practice heading off their opponents. (BAP photos)

Cal's varsity rugby team smashes records — and stereotypes

Update: On Saturday, April 19, the Golden Bears rugby team defeated the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos by a score of 67-29, then proceeded Sunday to leave Navy high and dry, winning 53-13. Now, Cal moves on to the National Championships at Stanford. On May 3, they will play Air Force and in a second match, Harvard will play Army. On May 4, the two winners play for the national championship.

- Late Thursday afternoon, as the sun set over lush green Witter Field, the California Golden Bears varsity rugby team was passing and scrummaging against its toughest competition.

That's right - the players were practicing against themselves.

Cal has had few rivals on the rugby field for years. The Bears have won a record-setting 19 of 23 national championships since the National Collegiate Rugby Tournament began in 1980, including emerging from the scrum as national champs for the last 12 years in a row.

 Mike MacDonald
MacDonald, a senior, balances his American Studies major not only with playing "prop" for Cal, but also for the USA rugby team.

Over the past 40 years, no college team in any sport has been more dominant. Currently, the Bears are tied with the Arkansas men's indoor track team for a record 12 consecutive national titles, superior even to the run amassed by North Carolina's women's soccer team with its 16 titles, nine of them in a row.

Cal has recorded only one loss this season, 30-17, against the University of British Columbia. The Bears came back in the subsequent away portion of this "home-and-away" series to beat the Thunderbirds 26-12, retaining the "World" cup title by a slim one point. (The series was initiated in the 1930s by Vancouver's 'World' newspaper.)

Even Goliath gets nervous

But the 9,670-pound Goliath that is the Cal rugby team won't be playing at full strength at this weekend's USA Rugby Sweet 16 Tournament, the qualifying battle for the "Final Four" National Collegiate Championships. Four of Cal's 15 starters have definitely been sidelined by injuries, as have seven reservists. That could make for a close match against UC Santa Barbara Saturday at 1 p.m. "Santa Barbara beat CalPoly, and we know CalPoly to be a very good side," says UC Berkeley senior Mike MacDonald, the Bears' "loosehead prop" and currently its only team member on the USA national team, the Eagles.

Mike MacDonald
'I don't think it's good if you go in too relaxed - you can feed off that nervous energy, plus you're aware of more things ... You're concentrating on what exactly you have to do every time, every play.'
-Mike MacDonald

While Cal takes on Santa Barbara, Texas A&M will play the U.S. Naval Academy rugby team at 11 a.m. Saturday, April 19, on Witter Field. "We don't know too much about Texas A&M, but if they're here, they're likely to be very good," says MacDonald. "Navy is always good, because they're an armed forces school and the dedication those guys give to anything they do is extraordinary. We always expect a tough match from the armed forces schools." The winners play each other Sunday at 1 p.m., and the victor will go on to the national championships May 3 and May 4 at Stanford University.

You would think that, injured starters aside, the Bears' impressive record would take the edge off pregame jitters. MacDonald, however, says he and other others still get nervous before all big games. "I don't think it's good if you go in too relaxed - you can feed off that nervous energy, plus you're aware of more things," he explains. "You're concentrating on what exactly you have to do every time, every play."

Not a "drinking team with a rugby problem"

Thanks to longtime coach Jack Clark's influence - and the team's stellar performance since it began at Cal in 1877 - the Bears are known as the most "professional" of the rugby teams that compete in the Collegiate Championships. Many of their opponents are on club teams, not varsity ones, and don't train year-round like the Bears do.

Coach Jack Clark
Coach Jack Clark played both rugby and football for Cal as a student.

"Rugby has a bad persona about it, where rugby players are looked at as drinkers first, then athletes," says MacDonald. "The common perception of rugby is that 'it's a drinking team with a rugby problem.'"

Although MacDonald admits that some partying does go on - he's in a fraternity, after all, as are many of the players - the Cal Bears are definitely athletes first. During non-game weeks like next week, Coach Clark has the team practicing twice a day three times a week, with the first practice starting at a hangover-crushing 6 a.m. In addition, they're expected to run for about an hour in the mornings and lift weights twice a week for a solid hour. So while the 47 players may weigh an average of 205 pounds, making them among the biggest teams around, that weight is not coming from beer guts.

MacDonald, for example, has lost 45 pounds since his freshman year, back when he was also playing football, and has shed 20 just since last year. He's down to a solid 260 pounds of muscle, most of which seems to be packed onto his thighs, which are the size of a small horse's. As one of the team's props - one of the guys who link arms and attempt to push the other team back during a "scrum," as well as lift his own teammates up to catch the ball in a lineout - he needs to be strong and bulky.

 rugby players practicing
Players practice hoisting one another up to catch the ball after a lineout throw.

"Size is an advantage, but I can definitely afford to sacrifice those 20 pounds if I can move quicker," he says, adding that he's just as strong as he was before. MacDonald can still squat-press a frightening 450 pounds, more than any other teammate.

Patriotic scrum beats

And if MacDonald is any example, these rugby players are also not the ignorant louts that many people associate with the sport. After all, the idea goes, who else would be willing to bash heads, shoulders, and everything else wearing only minimal padding? MacDonald may sport several small scars on his forehead and close-cropped scalp, but he is successfully juggling his major in American Studies with playing for both the Bears and the USA national rugby team - maintaining a B average, in fact.

It can be a challenge. The youngest member of the USA Eagles, for whom he has been playing for three years (two as a starter), MacDonald has to travel a lot internationally. He just returned Sunday from Madrid, where the Eagles beat Spain 62-13, and will get back on a plane next weekend to play Spain again, determining who will go into rugby's World's Cup. If USA wins, it will automatically be entered, but if Spain prevails, the point differential will determine who goes.

MacDonald's UC Berkeley professors are pretty understanding of his extracurricular commitments. "One of my teachers let me e-mail a paper in, which was nice of her, and another allowed me to make up a midterm today," he says. "I try to be as accommodating to them as they are to me. So far it's worked out wonderfully."

Want to know more?

• East Bay Express April 2 Cal rugby opus, "The Untouchables"

• CalBears.com's rugby coverage

• USA Eagles official Web site

• Guide to rugby rules and terms

The USA team's World Cup record is nowhere near as impressive as the Golden Bears - in all of their Cup appearances the Eagles have won only one game - but MacDonald says he likes the glory of playing for his country. In fact, that's mostly why he abandoned his nascent career in football: "I ended up making the national rugby team after my freshman year, and rugby just had a lot more opportunities to offer me."

One of those opportunities, of course, was the chance to extend one of college sports' longest winning streaks into a record. And if all goes well this weekend, the Bears rugby team will be well on its way into history.