Nov. 4, 2011
BERKELEY - University of California graduates and 2011 national collegiate champion co-captains Derek Asbun and Jason Law are the seventh and eighth former Golden Bear rugby players to pursue graduate studies at Oxford University, and are trying to become the fourth and fifth former Bears to earn Blue jerseys against Cambridge in the 130th Varsity Match to be played Dec. 8 at Twickenham Stadium in London.
"We're both working hard trying to get to where we want to be," said Asbun. "It's a constant competition."
"It is hard to think these men could make us any prouder, but they do by keeping this Cal-to-Oxford connection alive and active," said Cal head coach Jack Clark. "The Varsity match is a true sporting milestone and we've got our fingers crossed for Derek and Jason."
To earn a Varsity Blue is a singular honor that has been achieved by only three former Cal players: Gary Hein, Don James Jr. and Ray Lehner. Three other Cal graduates, Ross Biestman, Rick Santos and Matt Sherman, also attended Oxford and also played rugby, but did not play against Cambridge.
Law has been on the mend from a rib injury and faces an uphill struggle to make the 22-man "player order" as decided by the Oxford captain at the end of November. Asbun, who has earned several starts and was named Man of the Match against Richmond, appears to be playing his way into consideration for a spot on the roster.
Even if Asbun and Law are named to the 22, they must actually take the field during the Oxford-Cambridge match to earn their Varsity Blues.
"So many of the values you learn from Cal rugby are about more than rugby," said Asbun. "The more time I spend away from Cal, the more I realize that it was an invaluable experience that taught me how to be an adult."
"Cal really taught us not just the fundamentals of rugby, but how to be accountable for everything," echoed Law. "It translates well to anything you do in life."
Rick Santos, a starting prop on Cal's 1988 national collegiate championship team, took his double-major BA from the University and added an MSc from the London School of Economics, playing rugby for the Division I London Harlequins, before joining the Oxford Blues for the 1991 and 1992 seasons.
In '91 Santos made the 22-man Varsity squad but did not see action against Cambridge. The following year he toured Hong Kong and Japan with the Varsity but did not make the roster for the Cambridge match. Still, the foundation he brought to the U.K. from Cal ensured that Santos would be ultimately successful in life.
Santos is also the Secretary General on the board of Philippine Rugby. His three sons have played rugby since the age of five and his company is a sponsor of youth rugby in the Philippines.
"Cal rugby taught me that the best way to make a difference and give back is by developing young student-athletes into true international leaders," Santos said. "On a trip to Canada with the Cal team, Jack Clark challenged me when he said, `Rick, if you really want to make a difference and make your mark, do it in the international market, as that is the future.' Jack was right and I have spent the last 20 plus years doing just that."
Matt Sherman also attended Oxford from 2005-07 after making seven appearances with the U.S. National Team. Injured two years in a row during the Varsity's preseason tours of South Africa and Japan, he hung up his playing boots for good after the Japan tour but remains grateful for his experience.
Sherman has continued to be closely involved in rugby as the head coach at Stanford. He recently returned from New Zealand, where he was the backs coach for the U.S. National Team at the Rugby World Cup.
The three former Bears who have earned the Varsity Blue - along with the special jacket that goes into a player's locker for the achievement - were more certain of their chances of getting onto the field against Cambridge when they enrolled at Oxford.
Gary Hein and Don James Jr. enrolled together in 1989. Both had already been All-Americans and national collegiate champions at Cal, and members of the U.S. National Team. More recently, both became members of the Cal Athletic Hall of Fame. And both say that achieving an Oxford Blue compares favorably to those accomplishments.
"It ranks pretty high," said Hein of the Oxford honor. "They all have their different impacts emotionally and on your life, and all were wonderful experiences."
Hein and James, who networked their way into Oxford while living in Ireland following a U.S. National Team tour, helped Asbun and Law, as well as Biestman, navigate their application processes. Whether or not the latest Cal rugby alumni achieve a Varsity Blue, James said, "Worst case, you're going to get a degree and have a great experience."
The 1989 Varsity Match that included James and Hein was a tough 21-12 loss to Cambridge. James completed his diploma in Legal Studies, while Hein remained at Oxford in pursuit of his Legal Studies Masters in Jurisprudence and got to participate in the 1990 Varsity Match, this time a 21-12 victory.
Hein was excited in 1990 to play opposite Cambridge winger Tony Underwood, a national team player for England. In the first half, when Hein found himself caught in an overlap, he used his American gridiron instincts to induce the fullback to pass to Underwood, then stepped in front of the pass, made the interception and raced 60 meters for a try.
Hein's try for Oxford was caught on camera, captioned "The Eagle Has Landed" and later named the Times of London's 1990 sport photo of the year.
Ray Lehner played four Varsity Matches at Oxford, losing the 1997 contest, missing the 1998 match and then winning three straight in 1999, 2000 and 2001. He is now a teacher and football coach at Bishop O'Dowd High School in Oakland, as well as the rugby coach for the Olympic Club in San Francisco.
"Playing for Cal was probably my greatest rugby experience from the perspective of being on a team and winning those championships in the early '90s," said Lehner, who played for the U.S. National Team prior to and during his Oxford experience. "But Oxford, next to Cal, was a pretty special experience."
"It was cool to see him there," Lehner said of coach Clark's presence. "It meant a lot to me that he came over for it." Of the subsequent Bears who have matriculated at Oxford, said Lehner, "We're all so proud of the guys who are keeping this legacy alive."
The rugby program at Oxford was founded in 1869, 13 years before Cal began its team. The first Varsity Match was held in 1872 and has grown to become a virtual national holiday in England. Entering the 2011 Varsity Match, Cambridge leads the all-time series, 61-54-14.