BERKELEY - Following the completion of the Golden Bears' 131st year of spring 15s, California head coach Jack Clark met with CalBears.com to discuss team's return to Witter Rugby Field, the PAC Rugby Conference, "World Cup" series, Varsity Cup National Championship and other aspects of a very busy year for the oldest intercollegiate sport at the University.
With California's 131st year of 15s in the books, how do you feel about the team's performance?
"It was a good season with many firsts, like returning to Witter Rugby Field after being away for over two seasons, the inaugural PAC Rugby regular season and Varsity Cup national postseason. The team performed very well and almost had an epic season, but there is no denying our disappointment in losing the championship final."
Let's go right to the Varsity Cup final and work backwards. It was hosted by BYU in Provo on South Field. Wasn't that always an advantage too insurmountable to overcome?
"Yes and no. We almost won, so insurmountable, no. An advantage? Of course. The Varsity Cup universities had intended the final to be played at Rio Tinto Stadium close to Salt Lake City, but we had a scheduling conflict with Major League Soccer. Before the scheduling conflict arose we were in partnership discussions with Rio Tinto and they have the capabilities to bring lots of added value beyond the facility itself. We also wanted the Utah market. It is a mature rugby market and of the size where a college rugby championship can actually take center stage. Therefore, the right decision for the Varsity Cup was to move the venue to the BYU campus and the decision proved to be the correct call. All the teams were pleased with the quality of the event. No doubt it was always going to be harder on whoever played BYU in the final, but still the best option for what we're building with the Varsity Cup."
It was a close and exciting match, with Cal scoring three tries to BYU's two before losing on a last-second drop goal. What are your thoughts about the match itself?
"Not our best match, when our best match was needed. BYU is now back-to-back defending national champions for a reason: they're very good. I think our plan was good, but it didn't account for how physically strong BYU was at the breakdown. We just couldn't get into the rhythm we needed. Anytime we did, we asked hard questions of them, but we didn't get into that landscape often enough. Their halfbacks really controlled the game. They are both experienced players and they showed their abilities throughout the match. And hey, we had our chances. Several excellent try-scoring opportunities went wanting. Even getting outplayed in key areas of the match, we could have won. But we'll tip our hat to the Cougars as champions of 2013 and live to fight another day."
Who were Cal's outstanding players in the final?
"We had many players with strong seasons but I don't think we had too many strong final performances. JP Hurrell playing his first season of rugby at the hardest position on the field, tighthead prop, stands out. He's the latest evidence of how quickly a scholarship football player can make the transition to elite-level rugby player. I'm in awe of what he accomplished. Josh Tucker was very good on the wing. Jesse Milne came off the bench and made an immediate impact - it was my mistake not to start him. And of course Seamus Kelly was fantastic in attack and defense. Seamus has never had anything other than a great game for Cal."
Only four starters graduate - will this be a better team a year from now?
"Possibly. We'll see how individual players develop. We will get a few important players back from injury, which will help, but we will be roughly the same as this year, possibly a little better."
While we are on next year's roster, what can you tell us about the incoming fall 2013 freshman class?
"I think it's a really good class longer term, but it is unrealistic to expect 18-year-old freshmen to be of much immediate help against teams like BYU. For us to compete successfully against teams like BYU we need to develop players and that takes a while. When freshmen and even sophomores start for the varsity it means, more times than not, that we have a hole in our roster. Someone didn't develop the way we hoped and/or we had injuries at the position. Occasionally a Seamus Kelly comes along and beats out a good upperclassman but it's rare."
Back to the Varsity Cup - overall, was it a success?
"Without question. It was the best, most organized, team/athlete-centered national championship we've ever been a part of. I appreciated how involved the campus administrations were. The Naval Academy experience was top notch. BYU were gracious campus hosts. I know UCLA did an outstanding job. I was pleased with the semifinal we hosted at Cal. This has been a great investment of our resources. Most importantly, our student-athletes enjoyed the experience.
"I know a lot was made of USA Rugby's mismanagement of the old championship. But this was the first time any national championship competition has looked after any of our participation expenses and we appreciated it. And if the Varsity Cup left a few dollars in places like the Naval Academy, UCLA and BYU, great. Use the resources to help create sustainable rugby programs.
"I know what the athletic administrators at Navy, BYU and Cal were saying. They get it, they want to build a national rugby product."
What are the next steps for the Varsity Cup?
"The Varsity Cup universities will need to consider more expansion. Depending on the amount of expansion, this could alter the competition format. I believe the aim is to carefully examine expansion and format while keeping the Varsity Cup to a maximum four-weekend postseason which ends the first weekend in May. Personally I'm open to any number of teams or formats which meet those parameters. I have faith in the collective judgment of the Varsity Cup universities. Aligning the competition with the right partners and management is the obvious next and most important step. The Varsity Cup is a work in progress but the potential is really exciting."
Can you recap the PAC Rugby Conference experience?
"It mirrored the Varsity Cup in many ways. For us, PAC Rugby is the regular season to the Varsity Cup postseason. It is nothing if not logical for the Pac-12 member universities to play in a rugby competition. We have some good teams in PAC Rugby. We think the competition helps us grow our rugby programs. Among other things, PAC Rugby helps us bring fans and media exposure to our rugby. We can still play the local non-PAC Rugby teams like Saint Mary's and our traditional rivals like UBC, so it's the best of all worlds. Again, I see PAC Rugby as an investment of our resources. I know for a fact that what we were doing in the previous regular-season competitions were not investments. We were paying to play, working through a schedule of less-than-attractive matches which led to USA Rugby playoffs. With PAC Rugby our regular-season budgets are similar but we are leveraging the PAC Rugby Conference to better build our programs. My only regret is that it took us this long to figure out the way forward."
Will the PAC Rugby Conference expand beyond the founding six teams?
"Yes, I hope so, but again, these are collective PAC Rugby decisions. Utah has gotten on the other side of some team disciplinary issues, so they will be an important PAC Rugby participant. They are an excellent team. I think some teams see PAC Rugby as a destination they need to work towards, which is true. However, it's PAC Rugby inclusion which helps teams build their rugby. In this regard, the egg does come before the chicken. There are a couple other Pac-12 teams that should put their hands up. PAC Rugby affiliation would assist them getting from where they are to where they want to be. If the conference doesn't expand, so be it. A six-team conference together with what else we have going on creates a full regular season."
Where does USA Rugby fit into PAC Rugby and the Varsity Cup?
"I'm not sure. USA Rugby doesn't have the capability to add value, so I'm unsure of its role. The relationship between the organization USA Rugby and the American rugby community gets stranger by the day. Over time, the organization has morphed into a rudderless tax-collection body."
How significant was it to be back on Witter Rugby Field?
"Over-the-top significant. It was best for our players to be back performing on Witter Rugby Field in front of the student body, our fans and their families and friends. Really, really rewarding. It is also important to continue demonstrating to our campus administration how popular rugby is on our campus. Even after being away for two long seasons, our attendance was fantastic. Rugby outdraws the vast majority of our intercollegiate sports. It doesn't take much vision to see Cal rugby as a revenue sport capable of funding its operations through event income and sponsorships. We're not there yet and we need to bridge our path with continued fundraising, but commercial income will play a major role in the next 100 years of Cal rugby."
Now the Bears are off to the Collegiate Rugby Championships, which is a non-USA Rugby collegiate 7s national championship owned by a private company and NBC. Do the Bears have anything left in their tank?
"I certainly hope so. First we will take some time off to study for final exams and then we will gear up for the 7s. The CRC is an example of what American rugby is capable of, a well-packaged event at a top-class venue, NBC, sponsorship, fans and outstanding management. Our players enjoy it, our staff enjoys it and we are looking forward to the challenge."