Try to guess which national title Dartmouth and the University of California tussled for on Sunday. Debating? A good answer, their lofty academic reps considered, but incorrect. Nor was it golf, despite the site, Pebble Beach, Calif.
Nothing quite so enlightened or refined. The Golden Bears and the Green met for the collegiate championship in rugby, everyone's favorite mixture of football, soccer and trench warfare. The sport, a 160-odd-year-old British export, is slowly but surely winning converts in the Colonies. The college championships ran concurrently with the Pebble Beach Rugby Classic, which featured 32 sides vying for a club crown.
Cal's 6-4 defeat of underdog Dartmouth was the Bears' sixth crown in the seven years that the collegiate title has existed. The Bears are quickly becoming to rugby what UCLA was to hoops during the '60s and '70s. Buttressing this junior dynasty is Cal's strong football program. Let us explain.
Former rugby powerhouses USC, UCLA and Stanford won 11 of the sport's mythical national championships from 1961 through 1975. They have won none since. Each of their nosedives from grace occurred when the football coaches at those schools placed rugby off-limits to scholarship players. At Cal, that simply wouldn't wash. Ruggers there have always had free rein to engage in both forms of football, a custom that has thrived since a handful of Bears won the Olympic rugby gold medal in Paris in 1924. Current coach Jack Clark is the classic example: An All-Pac-10 tackle at Cal in the mid-'70s, he played lock for the American Eagles, the national rugby team, from 1978 to 1980 after a brief stint with the NFL Philadelphia Eagles.
May 11, 1986
Gary Hein, a fine defensive back for football coach Joe Kapp, is also an All-America wing for Clark and a member of the under-25 national team, Three more of Kapp's chaps suited up for Clark this season, and at Cal that's fewer than usual.
The U.S.A. Rugby Football Union president, Bob Watkins, is all for such crossing-over. Collegiate rugby in the States is not considered a varsity sport—the Pebble Beach championships were sanctioned by the USARFU, not the NCAA—but you wouldn't know it at Cal. More than 100 men try out for the team each year. Clark's intensity at practice has earned him the nickname "Mike Ditka," after the Chicago Bears' tempestuous mentor. During the last month of this 18-4 season, the Cal Bears ran 4½ miles uphill every morning—"a reasonably brutal run," Clark calls it. But there were other brutal demands: As of Sunday's final, the champs said they hadn't had a beer in a month.
Cal's temperance was oft mentioned at the Classic by those intent on tidying up rugby's beer-drenched image. "We've got to play down the bawdiness," said USARFU collegiate chairman Herb Howell. "We're not going to attract the top athletes as long as our image is that of a tavern league."
"We've really cleaned up our act," said tournament founder Paul Andrew, gesturing to the pine trees at the periphery of the Collins Polo Fields, where the matches were held. "Twenty years ago [the tournament is now 28, rugby's oldest in America] there'd be people fornicating in the woods, others using the bushes for commodes." Recalling, perhaps, those halcyon days, some of the locals seemed less than overjoyed to be sharing the neighborhood with 900-plus rugby players and their friends.
Pebble Beach is a coniferous wedge of the Monterey Peninsula, where links are king and driveways are hidden. Overheard as the Dartmouth team van passed an exclusive country club en route to practice Friday:
"What do you think it takes to get in there?" asked someone.
"Somebody's gotta die," was the reply.
Many thought something at least that drastic would be needed for Dartmouth to get very far in the nationals. One of the school's best players was a 5'10", 205-pound Argentine named Christian Tahtu, known as Tata. (To bid Tata adieu, a teammate says, one need only repeat his first name.) The school's motto this year, "We may not be big, but we're slow," was half correct. Dartmouth had the tiniest 15 at Pebble Beach.
The Green defeated Air Force 18-4 in the semis. The Cadets, looking impressive—in pregame warmups, at least—proved to be like the pet iguana one player had brought from Colorado Springs: less dangerous than they looked. They wasted too many possessions and committed numerous unforced errors.
The Golden Bears weren't as generous to Dartmouth. Cal's co-captain, Kevin Lake, looked mahvelous and played marvelously. A member of the under-25 national team. Lake has a liking for rugby that is at cross-purposes with his probable career: He is a model for the Ford Agency. A model who plays rugby is something like a piano prodigy who likes to pet piranhas. Lake, who admits his agents do worry, says, "It's a simple matter of priority."
"We call him 'Face of the '80s,' " says teammate Pat Doyle. "I'll tell you what, though—he's the meanest model you'll ever hope to meet."
Lake's 40-yard broken-field run late in the first half set up Cal's winning kick.
Lending color to the three fields around the collegiate championships were 32 other sides. They came from downtown Monterey; Kent, England; Hawaii; and numerous points between. An early result: The Old Blue of Berkeley, Calif., the best club team of this decade, was sent paddling home in the quarterfinals by the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, whose acronym, OMBAC, sounds like a garage attendant's instruction. OMBAC lost to the San Jose Seahawks, eventual 23-16 losers to Blackheath, the side from Kent, in the finals.
Of the quality of play in the States, Blackheath's Anthony (Crusty) Crust said, "Mayhem wouldn't be fair to describe the American game"—leaving no doubt that mayhem was precisely what he saw. "It's very, uh, energetic."
Bowling Green coach Roger Mazzerella had a surplus of energy on the eve of his team's semifinal match with Cal. He got two hours' sleep. "I'll tell you why we're going to win," he said. "They've been here before; it's old hat to them. We want it more."
Preferring an old hat to none at all, Cal outscored the orange and brown 31-14, controlling every scrum in the second half but two.
"I imagine people are tired of us winning this thing," Clark said. "I'm not sure I blame them. One of these days we'll have to give it up. But not until somebody else is ready."