by Anton Malko
Dec. 10, 2009
This story first appeared in the football gameday magazine Kickoff, Nov. 14, 2009
Enduring as the oldest intercollegiate sport on the California campus entering its 128th season, the sport of rugby is intertwined with the history of both Golden Bear football and the University itself.
Rugby also has an Olympic history that will reawaken with its return to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio De Janeiro, bringing to 22 the number of Cal's intercollegiate athletic programs for men and women that correspond with medal sports at the Olympics.
Ending what will have been a 92-year absence, rugby was voted back into the Olympics for the Rio Games by the International Olympic Committee on Oct. 9 with an 81-8 vote (three abstentions). Golf was also approved for Olympic inclusion in 2016 with a 63-27 vote (two abstentions).
Twelve nations will qualify for Olympic rugby competition - using a seven-a-side, 14-minute-match format ideal for the roughly two-week event - with medals for both men and women. If the qualifying ended today, USA would likely have both genders in the Olympic mix. The U.S. men's national sevens team finished 11th in the 2008-09 World Series, while the U.S. women won the illustrious Hong Kong Sevens in 2008 and advanced to the Cup semifinals at the first World Series for women in '09.
Though not currently considered a world rugby power, the United States would enter the '16 Olympic Games as the reigning champion. And it would be no surprise if Cal players earned spots on the roster that travels to Rio.
Cal's Charlie Tilden, Matt Hazeltine Sr., Red Meigan, George Dixon, C. "Babe" Slater and future Bears rugby coach Ed "Mush" Graff were among the Americans who stunned their European opponents and audiences at the 1920 Games in Antwerp, beating France, 8-0, for the gold medal; and again at the '24 Games in Paris, defeating Romania, 39-0, to advance to the final, where the Americans beat France once more, 17-3, for the gold.
"A return to Olympic status is something we've worked on for many years," said former Bears gridiron lineman and head rugby coach Jack Clark when the vote was announced. "It is truly a great day in the long history of our sport."
During its absence, rugby has attracted among the largest audiences in the world every four years at the Rugby World Cup - only the Summer Olympics and soccer's FIFA World Cup boast more. Cal players have made 485 international appearances for the U.S. men's national team, including Mike MacDonald '04 and Louis Stanfill '08 at the 2007 RWC in France.
"I have young men in the program now that probably, when they go to sleep at night, think about those five rings and what it would be like to represent their country in the Olympic Games," coach Clark told KGO Radio on the day of rugby's readmission.
With the 2016 Olympics preceded by the 2011 and '14 Pan Am Games, which have also added rugby, and the 2011 and '14 Rugby World Cup, today's ruggers have unprecedented opportunities to play for their country at the highest levels of international competition.
The foundation upon which 46 current and former Cal rugby players have developed into members of the national team has been strong since 1882, when rugby became the University's first sport played against an outside opponent. The Bears played four matches that first year, compiling a 2-1-1 record.
Three years later, in 1885, the rules of the game shifted to those of American football, but in 1906 rugby returned as the school's main fall sport after the administration decided that football was becoming too dangerous. Over the next eight years Cal rugby posted a 78-21-10 record.
The year 1914 marked a temporary end to collegiate competition due to the First World War and the return of football as the University's primary fall sport. Rugby finally returned to campus in 1931. During its hiatus, former Bears helped win two gold medals, and now student-athletes can once again strive to wear their nation's colors at the Olympic Games.
Under Clark, who began in 1984 as the sixth head coach in program history, the Rugby Bears have earned 20 of their 24 national titles (including 12 in a row from 1991-2002 and five straight from 2004-2008), an impressive combined record of 32-1 against rugby powerhouses Army, Navy and Air Force; 10 of the last 13 World Cup series vs. University of British Columbia; a domestic winning streak of 98 games from 1990-96 followed by a 70-game tear that lasted until 2003; and a winning streak over U.S. collegiate competition that lasted 114 matches between April 2004 and May 2009.
The drive to carry the Bears' gold-medal legacy into the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio has already begun.