Why would 65 teenagers spend a week waking up at 7 a.m. and spending six to eight hours participating in drills and workouts in a sport for which most colleges don’t give scholarships and which doesn’t have a professional league in the United States?
Because it’s fun.
The summer rugby camp at UC Berkeley is the only one of its kind in the U.S., and kids come from all over to be coached by one of the best staffs in the country.
“We’ve got some kids from Minnesota, some kids from Colorado, even one all the way from Germany,” said Jack Clark, head coach of the university’s rugby team and former coach of the U.S. Eagles, the national team. “They know this is a good opportunity to improve their rugby skills and mental game. But the most important thing for both them and us is to have fun.”
“Hey, it beats sitting around the house playing video games all day,” said coach Ray Lehner.
Clark’s staff at the camp reads like a who’s who of American rugby: Tom Billups is an assistant coach for the U.S. Eagles, played professionally in England and Wales and made 44 international appearances for the Eagles; Dan Lyle is the captain of the national team and a star player in England, named to the World IV by the London Times; and Lehner was a three-time All-American at Cal and played for the Eagles 33 times. In addition, several current Cal players are on the staff, including several All-Americans and four who actually attended the camp while in high school.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for the campers to be able to sit down with a player of Dan Lyle’s caliber and talk about playing the game,” Clark said.
Lehner said the campers “are like sponges. They’re always asking about the game, or what it’s like to play overseas, or if I’ve played against this guy or that guy.”
Lehner, who coaches grade school and high school teams in England, said the biggest thing for players to learn is learning the little things.
“American kids are unsurpassed when it comes to athleticism,” he said. “They tend to pick up the skills fairly quickly. What takes years to learn is the field vision.”
“It’s really cool that we get such good coaches,” said camper Justin Neville. “We get to talk to and learn from actual U.S. Eagles.”
Neville, a junior at Piedmont High School, is at the camp for the second year, and he said the camp is both fun and valuable.
“It’s a fun camp, and you learn a lot of techniques,” he said. “And you also get to see what other players are doing to prepare for the next season.”
The campers start every day at 7 a.m., eating breakfast before an 8:30 meeting and 9:45 a.m. practice session on Witter Field on campus. After a lunch break, there is either a seminar on academics or drug awareness, or a strength training session in the varsity weight room. At 2:30 p.m. it’s back to the field for more practice, followed by a strength seminar and dinner. The day’s training wraps up with a controlled scrimmage, called “Golden Bear Rules,” during which the players apply the skills they have learned that day. The scrimmage is videotaped, and the players and coaches analyze the tape before lights out at 10:30 p.m.
“They’ll be knackered by the end of the day, I guarantee it,” Clark said.
But while rugby is considered a violent sport, with full speed tackles by players wearing little or no padding, there are no full contact elements to the camp.
“We don’t want things to get out of control, where someone could get hurt,” said assistant coach and camp director Jerry Figone.
Clark said the techniques taught at the camp are not only meant to increase skill, but to prevent injuries.
“We want to impress on them that they have to make a commitment to play the game hard, but safely,” he said. “The game is only good when it’s not out of control.”
In rugby, if everyone involved isn’t aware and using good technique, severe injuries can occur. And at a camp where players are at different levels of skill and experience, it is best for the coaches to control everything.
“We’ve even got a couple of kids who have never played before,” Clark said. “You can’t just throw together a game in a week. There are big guys and little guys, and we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
Lehner said that despite the disparity in skill level, the campers all get along and help each other.
“By the end of the week, the kids who have some more skill will take the beginners and show them things, really try and help them get better,” he said.
Rugby is growing more popular in America, and Clark thinks there are several reasons why.
“Part of it is that it’s something new, something Dad didn’t do when he was a kid. So kids get to go home and give a lesson instead of getting lectured,” he said. “Also, high schools have really increased the scope of athletics beyond the traditional American sports. Rugby is becoming the second or third sport for a lot of the best athletes these days.”
There are about 25 youth rugby clubs in Northern California alone. Clark said the clubs in Sacramento, Piedmont and Orinda are among the best and send campers nearly every year.
The rugby camp is among the fastest growing on campus, and Clark expects more than 100 campers next summer.
Cal has undoubtedly been the best college rugby team in the U.S. over the past two decades, having won 13 National Collegiate Championships in the 17 years Clark has been the head coach, compiling a record of 271-54-4 over that span.