The California Golden Bears continue their efforts in developing a Rugby Sevens team, playing the same format in which the sport returns to the Summer Olympics in 2016, with their participation in the California 7s Saturday and Sunday at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif.
With the spring season on the American college landscape devoted to the full 15-man version of the game, autumn has emerged as the ideal season for the growth of the college seven-man game.
The Bears continue to face facility issues, including a lack of dedicated access to Witter Rugby Field during the ongoing renovation of Memorial Stadium until at least the fall of 2012. It is at that time that Cal hopes to have a comprehensive, long-term sevens development plan up and running.
"We are pretty green in the sevens game," said head coach Jack Clark. "No doubt we have very good potential, but similar to most university teams, we are new to fitting sevens into our annual training and competition plans."
The Bears have already accepted an invitation from NBC to play in its national collegiate invitational tournament in June of 2012. Cal has participated in that event the previous two years, advancing to the final in 2010 and the quarterfinals in 2011.
"To date we have only played in two weekend invitational tournaments," said Clark of the brief chapter sevens holds in Cal rugby history. "I thought we were really good in the 2010 competition, losing the final in overtime. Utah was a deserving winner; nevertheless, we played well and had a crack to win at the end of regulation with a conversion."
The following year, in addition to facility issues that created an all-away schedule for the Bears, Cal rugby endured a yearlong struggle to avert relegation out of intercollegiate athletics, a double-barreled battle that weighed heavily on the team as the season wore on.
"In the 2011 tournament it was a different story, as we were not very good at all," Clark said of last year's invitational. "By June, our tank was on empty.
With all that had gone on it was a truly difficult year. To successfully get through the postseason before going toe to toe with BYU in the Salt Lake City final, it took everything we had.
"When we assembled after the national championship for sevens and I saw how physically and mentally drained the boys were, I knew we were in trouble. Even though we won our first three matches to advance to the quarterfinal, we couldn't hide from the fact that we were performing poorly. We just didn't have the energy for the task."
This October, due to their commitment to participate in Cal's National Championship Week, the Bears found themselves unable to play at the Stanford/Pacific 7s, which took place on an overlapping Saturday. That conflict has necessitated the Bears' travel to the Saint Mary's/California 7s this weekend.
"The tournament looks to have strong competition from some of our old foes, like San Diego State, Cal Poly, UC Davis and, of course, Saint Mary's," said Clark of the California 7s. Of the host Gaels, Clark continued, "Anybody who doesn't understand by now that Saint Mary's has a dozen or so fast, evasive players, hasn't been paying attention. Similar to the 15s game, the Gaels will go straight to the top of the national sevens competition."
With care not to detract from their well-developed systems to build a team toward peak performance in 15s every April and May, the Rugby Bears have joined the national trend to play sevens in the fall intending to reach their full potential in both formats.
"We acknowledge the difficulty of contesting champions in both forms of the game, but we want the challenge," Clark said. "With the right approach I believe we can be nationally competitive in both sevens in the fall and 15s in the spring. There is really no other choice with so many of our players, now and in the future, wanting to live the Olympic dream."
Clark added that his program "has an obligation to help fulfill those aspirations. Cal will be in the business of developing Olympic rugby players much like we've been developing our U.S. World Cup players. It will take us a while, but at some point we will have built a real sevens curriculum and team."
Cal will take an all-time sevens record of 8-2 into the weekend event. The tournament schedule at the California 7s is still to be determined - check CalBears.com late in the week for confirmed fixtures.
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