Rugby dreams deferred to next year

Emily Kaiser

The University’s men’s rugby team congregated April 17 on the West Bank Fields for its last practice before heading west to the USA Rugby National Championships.

Grass had barely begun to sprout from the brown field, but the players took full advantage of the sun and warmer temperatures.

Three days later, the team spent the morning practicing on the outdoor Astroturf field of the University of California, Berkeley football stadium, with views of the lush green hills and ocean below.

The trip to the April 20-21 tournament in Berkeley was the second in the last three years, but once again it proved to be a disappointment. They lost their first game against California Polytechnic State University and the consolation game against the University of Wyoming.

The club sport continuously faces an uphill battle, with lack of funding and competition in the region impeding the team’s preparation for the high stakes of the championships.

“The trip to California was an unbelievable letdown,” said team captain Peter Kobliska. “We really thought we could beat them, so it was really demoralizing.”

But the trip to the Bay Area was much more than a chance to play in the tournament. While the team gets serious on the field, they also have fun as a group of friends more than three dozen strong.

Club sport status

As an extremely competitive Division I club sport in the Midwest, the team always fights through limited funding and bad reputations.

Rugby is often explained as a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. It’s a sort of mix of football and soccer in a nonstop game without pads. Players work as a team to bring an oblong ball over the opponent’s end line.

The team receives less than $10,000 a year from the University’s department of recreational sports, and had to fundraise about $40,000 more to play their season and make the trip to the tournament.

That means working concession stands at other sports events and licking piles of envelopes hoping for donations. Each player had to do eight fundraisers this year to pay for their trip.

Craig Alberg, a 2005 University graduate and former player, came to Berkeley with the team. He said the players deserve a lot of credit.

“They always work for it,” he said. “That’s what also makes the team; everyone worked just as hard to get here.”

Jessica Novotny, Sport Clubs program director, said clubs are a campus-life program rather than a varsity sport.

“Club sports are focused on student development versus NCAA sports, which are more about the competition,” she said.

As a Midwest rugby team, they have limited competition in the area and often have to travel to Chicago just to play a solid opponent.

Despite being ranked 15th seed, Wyoming was favored, said team president Jimmy Hanson.

“They always count us out,” he said.

Didn’t come to lose

Minutes before the start of the game, the Minnesota team did some final runs before heading up the football stadium stairs to the rugby field.

During their final talk before the game, players and coaches echoed their main motivation: “We didn’t come this far to lose.”

For coach Loren Lemke, there was no doubt his team could pummel Cal Poly.

“We are big and fast and mobile and a really good pack,” he said. “When (our team) puts it all together, it’s really pretty and really good rugby.”

Before the end of the first half, the 10th-ranked Minnesota quickly fell behind 7th-ranked Cal Poly. Two players ran off the field to the medical tent with blood streaming down their faces.

Mechanical engineering first-year student Sam Augspurger was the second to come off the field, sporting a nasty gash on his head after getting elbowed.

“The game started just as we expected: very fast-paced,” he said. “I got up and my head hurt, which happens a lot in rugby, but I turned around and blood was rushing down my face,” he said.

In the white tent along the field lines, medical professionals put seven staples and four stitches into his head before bandaging him up and sending him back into the game. Cal Poly fans turned around to smirk.

“The adrenaline took over, but it really started to hurt at the end,” Augspurger said.

The game concluded with a score of 34-10, crushing many players’ spirits.

Chance for redemption

Despite being a consolation game, the team still had something to fight for Saturday. If they lost, it could potentially cut the Midwest down to one team instead of two in next year’s tournament.

But by the first half, Minnesota was down 15-0 as there were more grunts than cheers from the sidelines.

At the halftime talk, coach Lemke couldn’t contain his frustration.

“Is this what we came here for?” he said. “I haven’t been pissed off yet. Now I’m pissed.”

The second half didn’t prove to be any better, with a final score of 29-5.

What happened?

While the team made small mistakes out on the field, their inability to practice before the tournament was a major disadvantage, psychology junior and player Casey Cronk said.

“We play our competitive league in the fall, and then sit around all winter and go to nationals in the spring,” he said. “Cal Poly and Wyoming started their league schedule in January and they are peaking, they are in shape, they have all of their stuff worked out.”

This spring, the team had a stacked schedule full of competitive games, but many fell through due to bad weather, Lemke said.

Kobliska said he hopes to increase the team budget next year because the best way to improve is “travel, travel, travel.”

“With not a lot of competition, we have to travel to find it,” he said.

Time to have fun

For many players, the social aspect of the game keeps them coming back. Off the field, the students are more like a group of best friends.

“Unless you’ve played with all of these guys, you wouldn’t realize that these are friends for life,” Alberg said.

The evening after their last game, about 15 of the players gathered in a hotel room to relax and talk rugby. “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” played on the TV in the background.

Hanson passed around his digital camera full of photos from the trip so far, including one of a bed mattress human burrito the players made earlier in the room.

Despite sore muscles and bruised bodies, most of the players woke up early Sunday for a day of tourism. The players literally became tree huggers as they wandered the Muir Woods staring at the redwoods.

While some players tried to find different small spaces for Cronk to crawl in, Hanson searched the forest floor for 6-inch-long banana slugs. Not long into the walk, Hanson found one.

“I’m so excited I found a banana slug,” he said.

At a nearby beach, five players stripped down to shorts or boxers and jumped into the frigid ocean. The other players and coaches stood in a long line on the beach, laughing at the players as they toppled over in the waves.

Then it was off to Fisherman’s Wharf for a much-needed lunch. Many players anxiously stood in line for a clam chowder bread bowl or fish and chips.

The day off was “really, really great,” Kobliska said. “It made the trip a lot better because rugby is meant to be fun.

“Stuff like that is really enjoyable for everybody and keeps people involved and coming back,” he said.

But for most, the game of rugby is what keeps them playing, even through staples and stitches.

“There’s no way to describe the feeling when you’re on the field in a competitive sport,” Augspurger said. “When I’m not playing, I’m thinking about playing and want to just go play.”