SI Vault
Joe Jares
April 04, 1966
Rugby is an old tradition at the University of California, and the Golden Bears approach the game with a combination of verve and casualness their English forebears might not recognize but surely would applaud
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April 04, 1966

Gentlemanly Game For Ruffians

Rugby is an old tradition at the University of California, and the Golden Bears approach the game with a combination of verve and casualness their English forebears might not recognize but surely would applaud

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Many people around the University of California in Berkeley have vital things to tell the world. Sometimes the messages can be transmitted orally, but generally the printed word suffices. Scrawled on a fence: "Batman is ugly." Sticker on a bicycle fender: "Stop the war machine." And on the rear bumper of a humble Volkswagen: "Happiness is Rugby."

Yes, Rugby—a game, not a hallucinatory drug. It is a game played with an inflated bladder that looks like a football in need of a low-fat diet. Yet Rugby at Cal is happiness—loose discipline, no pressure and the chance to cream somebody and later buy him a beer. The game has a 60-year tradition on the campus, and last Saturday it had one of its brighter moments, a triple-header in which 50 or so Golden Bear ruggers played, one after the other, an Oakland athletic club, Notre Dame and the University of Oregon. It was a pleasant way to end a busy week, especially pleasant because Cal, led by graduate student Jim Boyce from Australia, stomped the Fighting Irish, 37-3, beat Oregon with mostly second-stringers 26-8, lost to Athens AC with third-stringers 12-7 and proved, at least to the Notre Dame captain, "It is the finest Rugby team in the country."

This team may sound like a haughty and impersonal machine, but actually there was a charming casualness about the players and, indeed, the whole afternoon: the way the Bears straggled out one at a time while the Irish sprinted out in a group and did synchronized calisthenics, the way an Athens AC man wandered across the field at half time of his game to chat with his opponents, the way the pompous public-address announcer (a chemistry professor) second-guessed a player's field position and chuckled when the man obediently moved two steps back. That is the way Rugby is handled at Berkeley—the way it has always been run.

To investigate Rugby at California, one must begin and probably end at the campus pub, Larry Blake's Rathskeller (sign in window: "We have the bread, we have the wine, we need thou"). The beer is served in goldfish-bowl glasses, and so many pipes snake across the low ceiling that not even Blake dares to guess their purposes. A former intramural soccer player at Rutgers and a runner-up to Batman in the campus ugly contest, Blake has been hiring Cal ruggers to serve beer and sandwiches for 26 years.

"I have a particular regard for a sport that is sport for sport's sake," he said. "These kids fight their own battles. If they have to raise some money, they raise it. I've never had a bad one."

The biggest money-raising feat came last year and was led by Dr. Miles Hudson, a dentist from New Zealand who has coached Cal's Rugby teams since the late 1930s. The Bears of 1965 were undefeated and considered the school's best ever, so they received (or wangled) an invitation to tour down under. The invitation came easier than the financing.

"Our campaign began during some unrest on campus and we didn't know what to expect," said Doc, as Hudson is called by his players. But more than 460 former Rugby and football players donated money and by the time Doc and 21 of his lads boarded a plane for Brisbane in July there was $25,580 in the kitty.

Making good use of muscle and the American-style overhead pass, which the fascinated Aussie press called a "torpedo pass," Cal surprised everyone with a 5-2-2 record against men who had played the game all their lives. Most of Cal's players are from the U.S. and do not even see Rugby until they arrive in Berkeley. "The Golden Bears are the most exciting players seen in Brisbane since the Fijians in 1952," said one Rugby authority, and another raved, "A great thing for the American image."

The Rugby tradition started at Cal in 1906, when American football was under attack for being too savage. UC President Benjamin Ide Wheeler had told the Chicago Tribune in 1905, "Football must be made over or go." At Cal and Stanford it went, and in its place came Rugby. For nine years the Big Game was a Rugby match. In 1915 the schools severed relations and dropped Rugby, but there were still enough good Bay Area ruggers around in 1920 and 1924 to give the U.S. the Olympic championship.

Rugby resumed at Berkeley in 1933 and has been played ever since. Each year the Bears play the University of British Columbia—two games in Vancouver and two games in Berkeley—for the World Cup, and two games with Stanford for the Big Scrum Axe.

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