Interview With Cal Rugby Alum Ray Lehner

We're back today talking with members of the Cal rugby dynasty.  We've spoken with Marc Tausend and Scott Anderson before.  Today, we are talking with Ray Lehner.  Lehner played for Cal in the late 80s and early 90s at the "prop" position.  

Ray Lehner played with American hero Mark Bingham on a championship winning team in 1991.  Cal's Michael Silver described how amazing this team was as it built momentum for Cal's string of championships:

Then Clark and the players who would be returning the next season--including All-America loudmouth Ray Lehner, gritty captain-to-be Greg Chenu and irrepressible surfer dude Mark Bingham--spent several hours plotting their course: They'd trade their tears for blood and sweat. Among other things they conceived the still-dreaded April Drive, a relentless conditioning regimen that coincides with the Bears' toughest stretch of the season.

Clark's 1991 squad did earn a redemptive championship, beginning a tradition of dominance that would elevate U.S. rugby. This weekend in Virginia Beach, top-seeded Cal is expected to win its 12th consecutive national title. If the Bears lose to Army in the semifinal on Saturday or fall the next day to the winner of the Wyoming-San Diego State semifinal, it will be only their second defeat by a U.S. college opponent since that April afternoon in Washington a dozen years ago.

Lehner played for the All-American team and then also represented America on the US National team.  After Cal, he went to Oxford University and played there, also.  After dominating on that side of the Atlantic, he returned to Berkeley and coached Cal to several more championships in the 1990s and 2000s.  More on Ray Lehner, who currently coaches for Bishop O'Dowd high school.

Ray graduated from Jesuit High School Sacramento in 1988, where he played football and rugby. He went on to UC Berkeley and was a 3 time All-American, winning 3 Rugby National Championships as a front row forward. After a few seasons of professional rugby Ray returned to academia earning an MSt in History from Kellogg College, Oxford where he also earned 4 Blues as a rugger.


After representing his country 39 times including the 1999 Rugby World Cup, Coach Lehner retired from competitive rugby to pursue a career in teaching at Bishop O'Dowd. He currently teaches Government and Economics and is the Freshman Football Coach. His rugby coaching pedigree includes: Cal, Jesuit High School, The Oxford University Women, the Olympic Club San Francisco and the United States Under 20 National Team. Outside of teaching and coaching, Ray lists his enthusiasms as his dogs and the outdoors; Camping, Hunting and Fishing.

Ray Lehner has given a lot to this Cal rugby program, being personally involved in several National Championships with the team.  He talks to us about all these varying experiences and helps us better understand the "prop" position.

Many thanks to Ray Lehner.  After the jump, the entire interview.  Hope you guys enjoy it.  GO BEARS!


1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?


At St. John's The Evangelist (grammar school), we had an PE Coach, who played rugby.  He introduced us to rugby in 6th, 7th, and 8th grade. I then went on to play at Jesuit High School.

2. What got you interested in playing rugby at Cal?


I originally went to Cal as a football "walk on," but always planned on playing rugby in the spring.  I knew the Cal team was good and was looking forward to it.

3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?


Well, I can't really say as it was 20 years ago and I went to Cal hoping to play football.


4. Did you play on the frosh-sophs team?


In my freshman year, I was competing for a starting spot. I guess I was in "the rotation," but not an outright starter. Coach Clark always ran a "meritocracy" freshman or not.  If you were good enough you played up.

6. Can you take us through the average rugby practice?

Well generally speaking it would go like: warm up, rugby micro skill work, units skill work, team and then conditioning.

7. What activities outside of official rugby practice did you partake in to stay in shape?


My teammates and I were religious about lifting and running the fire trail, which is kind of a Cal Rugby right of passage.



8. Can you take us through the average home rugby game? What are your pre-game actives? What are your post-game activities?

Arrive at the stadium early, get taped, tactical team meeting with coach Clark, pre game warm up, return to the changing room, Coach Clark would give us one last motivational talk, and then walk up to take the field for the match.

9. What do you love most about your experience on the team w/ Coach Clark?

Tactically, he is a great coach who really knows the game of rugby. He also is a great motivator and inspires his teams with confidence. I always enjoyed his pregame speeches.  I always walked out of the pregame talk ready for war, I suspect my teammates felt the same way.

10. What was the toughest game during your career and why?


We did some battles with the Canadians back in the day. University of Victoria and UBC were tough but we were pretty competitive, turned them over now and again. I think in my years we beat U Vic once and UBC a few times.  It would appear in the modern era that Cal has an edge in the series with UBC, but thats not how it always was.

11. Any good stories on how you and your teammates would go about intimidating the opposition and dominate?

Well, we were not the Oakland Raiders and I'm not sure it makes good print, but we tried to be physical, relentless and clinical. We had a real workman's approach, no grand standing, no taunting, just did our job and most the time did it well....execute with a ton of precision.

13. What is the funniest moment during your time as a rugger for Cal?

 

On our way to the 1991 National Championships, we were riding to the finals in our team vans and one of my teammates, a freshman (who was going to start in the finals) was sound asleep in the van.  You would think a young guy would be a little nervous but he was asleep, a cool customer.


14. What was your favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?

Winning the 1991 National Championship.  We had been out of the winner's circle for the previous two years.

15. What was your least favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?


Losing in the (then) Pacific Coast Championships two years in a row (89 and 90) to Long Beach State.


16. Hypothetically, if you are the coach for women's rugby @ Cal, how would you build a successful program that is comparable to men's?

I would start by searching campus for those volleyball, basketball and track athletes that might not be PAC 10 Scholarship material and then recruit them to play rugby. Essentially you need to find some "great raw material" and then teach them the game of rugby.

17. How has the experience of playing rugby transformed your career after graduating from Cal?


I have been fortunate; rugby has taken me around the world, I played on the men's national team in the 1999 World Cup and went on to study at and play for Oxford University. Rugby has opened lots of doors for me.

18. What is your view on the situation surrounding the recent budget cuts at Cal that briefly imperiled rugby's status as a varsity sport? Do you believe there was a difference between "varsity" and "varsity club"? What do you think about how that process was handled by the administration?


I think is was a "money grab" or extortion is a stronger word.  Nothing more. The administration demonstrated a total and complete lack of honesty and competence in how they went about that. I was seriously embarrassed as a Cal alumni at how bad they look(ed).

19. What is your view on the serious injuries many rugby players incur? Do you think it is more or less safe than football? What changes, if any, do you think are necessary to improve safety? Do you think enough is done to help players handle serious injuries, such as concussions?

I think the question is poorly worded and makes too many assumptions. While there are plenty of bumps and bruises and other soft tissue injuries. Serious injuries are few and far between. I now coach football and rugby and know for a fact football is more dangerous. The insurance companies think so as well because it costs the same to insure a HS scocer and rugby team. Football teams cost more to insure. (TwistNHook Note:  Sorry!)

20. What is your view on Rugby Sevens? Legit form of rugby or bastardization of the game?



I prefer 15s.

21. Do you still keep in touch with your teammates?


Yes, we just had a 20 year reunion for the 1991 National Champions.

22. Do you still follow Cal Rugby?


Yes

23. How has Cal rugby changed since you played there?

We were still pretty "amateur" my first two years 89-90. We only trained Tuesdays and Thursdays and played on Saturday.  Then, in 91,92 we began to transition to a more serious and profesional approach. I guess we were like the bridge between being a club sport and a varsity sport.

 

Here we have some questions regarding Ray Lehner's position:  Prop

1. What is your role in a ruck? PS What is a ruck?


A ruck is when a player has been tackled to the ground and players from both teams are "battling for the ball."  A prop's job is to hit the ruck from your side and move bodies or move the pile, like an O lineman in football.

2. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goal in a ruck?


Anticipate where the tackle should take place and then try and be on seen.

3. What is your role in a maul? PS What is a maul?


A maul is when two players 1 from each team are fighting for the ball on their feet (not tackled) more guys pile in and try and drive it towards the opposition's goalline. A prop's job is to push and drive the maul.


4. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goal in a maul?

Try and get good body position, leverage, and then pump your legs.

5. What is your role in a scrum?


Finally, the prop's most important role to anchor the scrum. Props provide the stable platform for the rest of the forwards in the scrum. It is designed so 1000s of pounds of pressure are being driven through the prop's core. Your spine is like a transmission that transfers all that force to the opposition.

6. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals in the scrum?

T1_rugby_medium

via i.a.cnn.net



Practice scrums alot. Core and strength training.

 

7. Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as a prop?


Tons of Neck and Core.

8. What originally got you interested in being a prop?

Body type. Props are typically powerful square guys with strong legs, necks and shoulders.

9. Are there any other positions you like to play?


I have played some second row, but if I could play any position I would love to be a full back.

 

11. What is your role during a line out?


To lift the jumpers, to block and drive mauls.

13. What is the difference between the losehead prop the tighthead prop?

I played mostly tighthead and I think most agree that it is the more difficult of the two. The tighthead really anchors the scrum. The loosehead trys to disrupt the oppositions stability by attacking the tighthead.

14. Which one did you play more and why?


Mostly tighthead

 

 

 

All-American Team


1. What was it like to be selected to the All-American team?

A great experience, I was always really proud.

2. What is the selection process there for the All-American team?

Back then there were two pathways. 1. Play well during the national championships where the "selectors" would get to see you. 2.  The other pathway was that you represented your territory in the Collegiate Territorial Championship. CA is part of the Pacific Coast and we competed with the West, the Mid West and the East. Today those 4 have been further divided, but generally speaking I think the pathways remain the same.

3. What were the practices like for the All-American tour?


They were ok. I thought they were mostly geared towards getting a unified pattern and style of play that would suit a bunch of guys from different teams.

4. What was your favorite moment playing for the All-American team?


I have 3
Being presented with you jersey as a starter
The National Anthem
Having a great first scrum

 

5. How did it feel representing America abroad?

Rugby_scrum_medium

via berkeley.edu


 

Special, I mean it's the only All-American team that actually goes and plays together, pretty cool.


6. How is the All-American team viewed abroad?

Many people do not typically associate rugby with America, but once they get past that initial ignorance I think they are pleasantly surprised.

7. What did you learn at Cal that helped you succeed with the All-American team?

It would be a long list but the main thing all Cal Rugby players leave with is like a PHD in "leadership". From the beginning Coach Clark spends a ton of time on "standards". I have always felt through the curriculum of rugby the Cal guys are learning about leadership, team culture and team standards.

 

US National Team

1. What was it like to be selected to the US National Team team?


Incredible

2. What is the selection process there for the US National Team team?


It's totally unclear what the pathways are to the men's national team. It used to be similar to the All-American team, but under new leadership it's not very clear.

3. What were the practices like for the US National Team tour?


Intense. Everyone wants to show their best nobody takes a play off.

4. What was your favorite moment playing for the US National Team team?


Beating Fiji and almost beating Wales in SF.

6. How is the US National Team team viewed abroad?

Sadly, everyone uses a cliché to describe the US mens national team abroad..." a sleeping giant." They have been saying that for 30 years.  We should be good by now, so I do not really know what that means. Historically our men's national team made a ton of progress under Jack Clark and then Tom Billups.  Since then the team has completely regressed floundering under a couple of ordinary head coaches. The verdict is out on the current coach.  He will be judged by his world cup performance, but I suspect the experience is pretty ordinary now which is too bad for the players.

7. What did you learn at Cal that helped you succeed at the US National Team team?

I don't know that I would say we were a success. I think we were a work in progress that posted some good results. But as I mentioned at Cal Rugby you learn leadership.

8. Did you play in the Rugby World Cup with the US National Team? If so, what was that experience like?


I did it was great the 1999 RWC in Dublin. It's a special time.


Oxford University


1.  What interested you in joining Oxford?

I knew a couple of old Cal guys who did some graduate work there.  I was interested in getting my masters and playing some rugby along the way.


2. What is the selection process there for Oxford?

Rugby is a huge sport at Oxford and Cambridge.   It's a very cosmopolitan rugby experience...you get guys from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Japan, Canada and all of the British Isles. And of course the odd American. They play a 12 match domestic season which serves as the selection process for the Varsity Match Vs Cambridge held on the 2nd Tuesday in December.

3. What were the practices like for Oxford?

Intense selections are always competitive so nobody ever wants to take a step backwards.

4.  What was your favorite moment playing for Oxford?

Winning the 1999 Varsity match after Oxford had lost 5 in row.

5. How did it feel representing American rugby in Oxford?

Well, I suspect most people did not really know what to make of an American rugby player.  That sort of made you an interesting novelty item like the talking fish.

4778825_medium

 

6. How is your English accent? Can you do a really good cockney accent?

I am the president and founder of the "Society to Defend American English."  We regularly mocked any Americans who took their Anglo-phillia too seriously.  So no I have no English accent to speak of, but I am an Anglo-phile as I married one and brought her home with me.

7. What did you learn at Cal that helped you succeed with Oxford?

Leadership
Team Standards
Organizational Skills

8. What is the average day like for an Oxford rugby player?

Lectures from 800-400
Strength and Conditioning Training from 430-600
Rugby Training from 600-800.

 

Coaching

1.  You coached with Cal. When and for how long did you coach at Cal?

I coached right after I graduated in 1994 to 1996. Then again I returned to coach in 2003 and 2004.

2. What were your roles when you coached for Cal?

I coached the forwards.

3. How did it feel to coach at your alma mater?

I really enjoyed it.

4. What was the experience of seeing Coach Clark as a Coach instead of a player?

The demands and standards are even higher as a coach.

5. Did you enjoy coaching?


I loved it.  There was always a lot of pressure, but I enjoyed it.  I look at it like an investment in human capital.   I learned a ton that serves me now as a professional High School Educator and Coach.

6. What is the average day like for a Cal rugby Coach? 

Get to the rugby office about 330 for a pre practice meeting, we would come up with a training plan and then go out and execute it.

 

 

Many thanks to Ray Lehner for his awesome answers to this never ending array of questions!  GO BEARS!

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