The Untouchables 

Cal's rugby program is so astoundingly good that it's destroying a sporting tradition -- or so say the losers.

Just four minutes into the match, and the California Golden Bears rugby team had already charged down the field for a touchdown against the University of Utah. Even for spectators who knew nothing about the sport, it was clear the Bears had just demoralized their opponents. Last year, the Runnin' Utes were good enough to challenge Cal in the national championship game. Today's contest, some had hoped, would offer a display of highly competitive rugby.

But ten minutes later, Cal scored again. Another three minutes, another score. Two minutes after that, yet another. The Bears were now up fifteen-nothing with more than an hour left to endure. Waiting for the kickoff, the Utah kids rested their hands on their hips and shook their heads. They shouted feeble encouragement -- "Let's keep on 'em, Utes!" and "We're still in this!" and "Now it's our turn, guys. Let's go!" The remarks were meant to rally team spirits, but in truth, they only acknowledged the larger problem: The Utes faced a steamrollering this afternoon from the most overbearing and methodical rugby machine ever created.

Since the National Collegiate Rugby Tournament kicked off in 1980, Cal has won the championship title an astounding nineteen times, including the last dozen years straight. Legacywise, it's without question the greatest collegiate program ever to tackle the sport in the United States. Over the past two decades, Cal has lost to only a handful of American squads, bringing their colors international respect. Yet back home, where rugby is widely considered as much a college keg-social as it is a sport, the perennial champs have drawn spite from fellow ruggers for, in essence, having the audacity to play too damn well.

Granted, most of those gripes come from players who approach the sport beergut-forward. But other complaints are more sober. Rugby is still considered a club sport on the majority of the four hundred college campuses where it's played, and there are vast differences in ability between teams. Considering that only about twenty of those schools -- and that's a generous estimate -- field a squad that can accurately be described as competitive, Cal's buttoned-down outfit stands out as men among boys. And that can be troubling in an ultraviolent activity where girth, speed, and aggression all amount to success.

Cal's dominance was so dangerously obvious in the spring of 2001 that Stanford head coach Franck Boivert forfeited a match against the Golden Bears rather than risk injury to his players. Boivert even suggested at the time that Clark's program had so outgrown the competition that its continued beating up on lesser teams was unsportsmanlike. After all, if Tiger Woods challenged the duffers at Diablo Valley Golf Course every weekend, where's the achievement? To Boivert's credit, watching Cal players mash defenders into the turf initially conjures up a sense of admiration, but that sentiment eventually succumbs to a more unsettling feeling: You're witnessing a cruelty.

Of course, none of these thoughts appeared to be troubling the three hundred or so Cal fans at Witter Rugby Field. For them, it was simply a perfect Sunday afternoon to take in a match. Witter, located in Strawberry Canyon above Memorial Stadium, is one of the true sweet spots on the Berkeley campus. Heavy rains from the night before made way for blue skies in the afternoon, drawing out the warm fragrance of the surrounding eucalyptus trees. Cal's blue-and-gold logo shimmied on the pristine lawn's midfield. And from the bleachers, tiny white sails could be seen gliding across the San Francisco Bay.

From Utah's perspective, the scene was somewhat less picturesque. Twenty-two minutes in, Matt Sherman, Cal's captain and fly half -- comparable to an American football quarterback who calls offensive plays, but does so on the fly -- made a blind, over-the-shoulder pass that brought the crowd to a unified two-syllable sigh that sounded like "Uhhh-ahh!"

In rugby, small moments such as these are appreciated in full. As with football, the object is to move the ball into your opponent's end zone, despite his best effort to slam you to the ground. To score a touchdown, the team with the ball runs, making a series of lateral passes -- never forward ones -- to teammates. When done correctly, all fifteen squad members run downfield in a slightly diagonal line, each pitching to the man behind him a split second before getting tackled.

In this case, Sherman was sprinting toward the left-hand corner of the end zone and running out of room when two defenders angled toward him. It looked as if he had only two choices: hold onto the ball and take the big hit -- players wear little, if any, padding -- or pass to the man on his left, who most likely would also get knocked out of bounds. Instead, the instant before the diminutive fly half got creamed, he jumped into the air and turned his head to the left as if he'd settled on the second choice, and then tossed the ball over his right shoulder into the hands of a teammate who ran for another score. Twenty-zip.

The Cal fans, mostly parents and rugby alumni, stood and roared. "Way to go, Worm!" shouted one through cupped hands, using Sherman's nickname. The field loudspeakers bleated out the Cal Fight Song, again. Parents arranged themselves back into their L-shaped bleacher cushions. The Bears relaxed their shoulders and slowed to a trot, waiting to kick off. The sailboats on the bay tacked and swayed.

But then a Runnin' Ute meddled with the script. With the Bears rolling yet again, one of Sherman's crafty laterals was intercepted just before Cal could cross into the goal. The Ute, a skinny, duck-footed runner, clutched the large, oblong ball like an oversize egg he'd stolen from a henhouse, and ran chin-up the entire distance of the hundred-meter field to score. Utah parents in red windbreakers stood up in the stands to let out careful applause. "Well," one remarked proudly, "looks like there won't be a shutout today."

Who knew? Who knew they'd been tossing around the ol' pig's bladder at Cal since 1877, and doing it with such aplomb? The story of the program is told on the walls of the team's clubhouse, a refurbished men's locker room decorated with shelves of polished gold trophies and glass-encased jerseys worn by turn-of-the-century players. Oriental rugs and leather chairs give the room a downright Ivy League feel, a gentlemen's den better suited for sipping brandy than Bud. One black-and-white photo shows Cal and Stanford players colliding circa 1912, dirty as coal miners, with 25,000 fans cheering them on back when rugby was king.

Head coach Jack Clark's office is just outside the lounge area. In the rugby world, Clark has earned a prestige similar to that of Bill Walsh in American football. More recently, he's drawn comparisons to Phil Jackson, the Los Angeles Lakers' philosopher king, for his like-minded rhapsodizing on sports as a metaphor for the Bigger Picture. When Clark considered leaving Cal in 2001 to coach a professional club in Bath, England, the birthplace of the sport, one sportswriter referred to him as "the one-man architect of American rugby."

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