Men’s rugby is the oldest sports club on campus, having taken the field for the first time almost five decades ago. Still, they’re relatively young compared to St. Mary’s rugby club, who have been around for more than 100 years.
This made UC Santa Cruz’s final game of the preseason against St. Mary’s on Jan. 25 all the more daunting, as the St. Mary’s team continuously improved over the years and are a true juggernaut in the world of college rugby.
St. Mary’s A-side are currently the second highest ranked club in the nation. The Slugs sent out A-side to take on St. Mary’s C-side, but unfortunately for the Slugs, a program as prestigious and talented as Saint Mary’s usually doesn’t suffer too steep a drop-off in talent between their A, B and C-side teams.
UCSC learned this the hard way, losing the game 53-10. However, the Slugs are no strangers to playing against powerhouse teams and proved they aren’t intimidated by any opponent.
“We’ve played other teams that are top in the nation,” said junior prop and team president Thomas Beeman. “At this point we’ve played Cal Poly three times and they were the best in California last year. A team’s status is never what fazes us.”
The Slugs came out of the gate looking strong, grabbing a 5-0 lead on a try scored by senior fullback Joe Johnson. UCSC was winning the possession battle through the first twenty minutes of the first half, but then things started to head south.
“It seemed like we had the ball for 18 of the first 20 minutes, then once we gave it up for a little longer than that, we were on our heels for the rest of the game,” Beeman said. “We have to be able to play the full 80 minutes.”
After it was over, head coach Robby Bellue looked to draw from the positives shown during the initial segment of the game.
“For the first 20 minutes we hung with St. Mary’s, and St. Mary’s has a storied program,” Bellue said. “They’ve been playing rugby for well over 100 years. We came to win, I won’t lie, but if the boys leave it on the field and give it 100 percent there’s no shame in that as well.”
On the other hand, he knew his team was still capable of a higher level of play.
“We lost heart,” Bellue said. “There’s a lot of things you talk about with winning in rugby — it’s tactical, it’s behavioral, but really, it’s about heart. It’s not easy to run at someone or tackle someone at full speed but you have to do it.
It’s not easy. Rugby is an incredibly physical game. It’s played in two 40-minute halves and the running and tackling practically never cease. Unlike American football, after a tackle is made no whistle is blown. Bodies continue to pound into one another until one of the teams comes up with the ball and attempts to keep moving it downfield. On top of that, they play with no pads or helmets.
Amid all this apparent chaos, rugby is also a very well-coordinated and finely orchestrated sport, which is a thing of beauty to watch when every player is in sync with one another.
“It’s a consummate team sport,” said the team’s other head coach Jeremy Sanford. “You need 15 guys playing as one. It’s the opposite of what our society is about today, which is all ego and superstars. Here, if you don’t concentrate on your teammates, you lose the ball, you get injured and you can get beaten severely.”
Sanford said this year’s team can be very clinical and sharp at times, but they haven’t found their true character yet. The team is very young after losing a great deal of seniors last season and new guys are having to step into leadership roles.
However, Sanford saw flashes of excellence during the preseason, highlighting his team’s sky-high potential. He recalled a win over UC Davis earlier in the fall where his team played with great poise and fortitude, and believes they will be able to find that mode of play again once the regular season begins.
The Slugs won’t have to wait long for a chance to prove themselves as their first game of the regular season takes place this Saturday at home against a very strong Stanford team.
“Our team’s goal is always to finish first in the league,” said junior prop and team president Thomas Beeman. “Last year we finished second. Luckily, Stanford will be one of the hardest games of the year, if not the hardest. That should dictate how we’ll do for the rest of the season.”
Beeman and the rest of the team look forward to the challenge.