Interview With Cal Rugby Alum - Rob Weedon

We've been taking a walk through the Cal rugby team this spring, talking to various alumni at various positions.  We've talked with Marc TausendScott AndersonRay Lehner, and Michael Freeman.

This week, we have another great interview on Rugby.  We speak to an alum from the great white north, Rob Weedon.  Hailing from Canada, Mr. Weedon grew up playing rugby and heard of Cal when they played some of the Canadian schools. 

Coming to Berkeley, Rob Weedon played outside center and will answer some questions on that position today.  He played for Cal in the early to middle part of last decade and has a lot of information about those National Championship winning teams.

Many thanks to Rob Weedon for taking the time to sit down and answer these questions.  I really hope you enjoy his answers, which are after the jump.  GO BEARS!



1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?


The high school I attended, Brentwood College School, actually required all male students in grades 8, 9, and 10 to play rugby (a doctor's note was required to exempt one from participation). I had a fairly athletic childhood, playing a number of sports including hockey, soccer, track and some gymnastics and was exciting about trying rugby. I owe much of my early interest and development in the game to my high school head coach, Tony Medina, and the rest the coaching staff at Brentwood, who were instrumental in expanding my ability and interest in the game.

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


I had known about Cal Rugby partly due to its annual fixtures against UBC in ‘the world cup' as well as previous fixtures against UVic and partly because it has the reputation of being the best college team in the US. I got the opportunity to watched CaI play at UBC one spring and knew of a former Brentwood rugby player (David Stroble) who had continued his rugby at Cal.


Although rugby was the thing that initially interested me in Cal, what attracted me the most about Cal was the combined education and varsity athletic experience that it offered. I was lucky enough to have a many options both north and south of the border that had very good academic reputations but no school offered the combination of Berkeley's science education reputation and varsity rugby experience.

3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?


My high school counselor got in touch with the Cal rugby office and expressed my interest in the team. The coaching staff was interested and invited me down to attend the Cal Invitational tournament which was a two day tournament hosted at Cal. The weather was amazing that weekend. After walking up the hill from the west of campus by the Valley Life Science Building to Strawberry Canyon's Witter Field to watch Cal play, the coaches didn't really need to do much selling.

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


Yes.

5. What was the experience like playing on the frosh-sophs team?


The experience on the frosh-sophs team introduced me to the Cal Rugby offensive and defensive systems in a game situation. It was a positive experience both for me and many of the younger rugby players who might be stuck playing behind a more seasoned veteran upper classman.

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


1st period: Warm-up, active stretching


2nd period: Individual skills, practiced as a team: Passing, 2 on 1s, contact skills.

3rd period: Individual skills, practiced as a team: Rucking/Tackling/Defensive drills


4th period: Units: Forwards and Backs


The forwards and backs would split into their respective groups. In the backs practice session, the staff would design drills to develop the skill sets a back would more often require, such as longer passing, kicking, specific contact skills, defensive alignments on set pieces and defensive systems. Drills were also designed to develop our abilities to read a defense and call a play which would exploit that defense the best, given the quality of possession. These periods would also be used to practice our primary offensive possession menu to work on the proper timing, positioning and sequence of movements for each player in each play.


5th period: Team Run


During the team run, we would incorporate everything we had worked on in units as well as install plays which involved both forwards and backs, such as kickoff and specific plays we had in our menu to call in our offensive menu from set pieces (scrums and lineouts). Earlier on in the week, these sessions would be contested, with a higher level of physical contact. At the end of the week the physicality would be reduced and the team runs would be uncontested to prepare for the upcoming game.

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

During the fall offseason, members of the team would get together to play touch rugby. Although many of the habits and tactics used in touch don't always translate well to an actual game, some of them did and it was a fun way to get a little fitness work done while working on some of our more adventurous skills.

Although I would occasionally take in an extra weight lifting or core/flexibility exercise session, the strength program our coaching staff put together was comprehensive and specifically designed for the each phase of the year (off season, pre-season, in season) so I didn't feel the need to take in a lot of extra lifting.

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

For pre-game activities this depended on whether I was in the starting line-up of the Varsity team or not. One of the unique things about our program that some people don't know about is that a lot of the venue preparation tasks required to prepare Witter field for a home rugby game are performed by members of the team. If you walk up to Strawberry Canyon at 9 A.M. on a Cal Rugby home game day, you will see the field being set up by the players. Likewise, if you stick around after the game, the whole squad helps break down the venue and walks the field to replace any turf which may have been displaced during the game. Although it may not have been something you wanted to do following game, you did it because it helped the program and acted on the adage Cal Rugby players learned from day 1: "expect nothing but be grateful for everything".

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Preparation for the game between the lines for me would start the night before: getting a good hardy and healthy meal. The starting fifteen for the varsity team would usually go out for a meal as a group for most games. On game day after a good night's rest, I would have a good sized breakfast before heading up to the training room a couple hours before kick-off to get any taping done. After that I would head to the locker room where the team was assembling and getting dressed and ready for warm up. During this time I would generally keep to myself and think about my roles and responsibilities during the game. The whole squad would then go through our pre-game warm-up which involved some active stretching, passing drills and the execution of a few plays in unit. Kickers would then practice a few kicks out of hand, or on goal as the starting XV returned to the locker room and the balance of the squad headed up to the field. In the locker room, Coach Clark would give his pre-game speech, prior to leaving the locker room for the leadership on the team to have a final word prior to heading up to the field for the National Anthem.


Following the game we would break down the field and host the visiting team for a meal.

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

Coach Clark has an amazing ability to create a competitive culture on the team that gets the most out of each player. Each year would offer a different group, and the approach might have to be tweaked but rest assured, he always found a way to help us achieve our potential. He helped create a culture in which we held and enforced high standards for each other and expected the most out of each other. If he ever wrote a book on organizational behavior or high performance, I would be one of the first in line to get one. As a motivator on game days his pre-game and half-time speeches had an impressive way of getting you ready psychologically for the game.

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


The last game I played: the 2006 National title game against BYU. We knew BYU was very talented coming into this game and we worked very hard to prepare for the game. Their backs were much bigger on average than ours and included a couple dangerous attacking players, but we stuck to our systems and held on for the three point victory. The three point margin of victory justified all the work we had done and the sacrifices we had made.

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

As a team we didn't really think about the game that way. We were more focused on striving for constant performance improvement in all aspects of our game. Intimidation may have been a by-product of what we did (or what those who wore the blue and gold did before us) and how we played the game, but it wasn't something we specifically went out to accomplish.

 


12. What are some of the fine details rugby fans should pay attention to when they first get into the game?


The most confusing part of the game to most fans new to the game is the tackle situation: in rugby there is a contest for possession of the ball after every tackle. This contradicts the US sports cultural learned from watching football where once you are tackled the play stops and your team retains possession of the ball (unless it is 4th down, of course). In rugby, after making a tackle the defending team, within the rules of the game, has an opportunity to gain possession of the ball. So what are the rules to rules to pay attention to? If the tackle happens in space, with no attacking players on scene to maintain possession of the ball, the tackler has to release the tackled player but can then make a play for the ball. So why wouldn't the person tackled just hold onto the ball until his teammate arrives?

Because it is also a rule that the once tackled, the tackled player can make one final move with the ball but then has to let go of it, hence making it available to the defender. If there happens to be another attacking player on scene, then the defending player cannot make a play for the ball and must physically move the attacker behind the ball for the defending team to gain possession of the ball. If the defense sends in more players for the ball, they might have a better chance of moving the attacking players off their ball, thereby creating a turnover. Additionally, sending in a few defensive players to compete for the ball can be a rewarding tactic, in that it will sometimes delay the availability of the ball for the attack, so that the remaining defenders have a couple more seconds to move into better positions to defend the subsequent attack.

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



Probably the first time I travelled back to Vancouver for the 2nd leg of the ‘World Cup' against University of British Columbia. For me personally, my freshman year had been pretty disappointing, mostly due to the fact that I had broken my foot during Christmas break. Through the fall, I had gotten to know some of the guys on the team, but wasn't super close to all of them because I wasn't fully practicing with the team yet. What many of the Cal guys didn't know yet was that my identical twin brother played for UBC, on their fresh/soph development team. It was entertaining to watch so many Cal guys take double takes with confused looks on their faces wondering how my foot had healed so quickly and what I was doing playing for UBC. All the Cal guys always joked around that my brother was my evil twin. Of course if you asked the UBC guys, I was his.

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


I don't know if I can single any one moment out. From a unique experience perspective: playing against my twin brother in such a historical rivalry was a pretty cool. From a competitive experience: the National Championship game against BYU in 2006.

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


Losing the National Semi-final to Air Force in 2002.

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?


Replicate everything that the men's team does. As a team during the season we only had one off day. Whether it was video analysis, practice, weight lifting, post-game regeneration, we did something rugby related 6 out of 7 days a week. Towards the end of the season we would add another conditioning session a couple days a week. As the coach it would be important to reinforce a culture of continuous improvement and putting the values of the program first, the team second and the individual last.

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


Hard work, sacrifice, individual accountability, leadership. Those concepts (and more) you learn as part of Cal Rugby. Many of the same principles I learned in rugby, have improved many aspects of my life. If you commitment to continually improve yourself, whether it be at work, at home, or relationships with your friends or family, an attitude towards continuous improvement can benefit you.

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 am extremely proud of how the Cal Rugby supporters responded to the situation. When a group can raise that amount of money in such a short period of time, they clearly value preserving the Varsity experience for current and future student athletes.

 


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 know there are studies on some of this stuff, so I probably wouldn't be the best source on this. I have seen some studies based on US high school data that actually showed the serious injury rate of rugby compared to football was significantly lesser, whether in a practice situation or a game situation.

In terms of concussions, I know Cal did a great job in assessing and managing a head injury to one of our players. Every player had a baseline test performed on them when initially enrolling in the program which would be used in the event you got a head injury to assess your injury and your recovery. Those who did not perform acceptably on the test were not cleared to practice or play.


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


A legit form of the game. 7s requires a different skill set than in 15s with more emphasis on speed and agility, and passing skills, as there is more space per athlete on the field. Mistakes such as missed tackles and poor passes resulting in turnovers or turnovers in general are amplified because of the shortness of the games, which makes the games exciting for a spectator because of the potential for upsets. Having played the format myself a bit, I can tell you that your physical fitness and rugby skills are tested to the extreme in 7s. Whether you are a proponent for the format or not, the International Olympic Committee has made up its mind already, and I look forward to the prospect of seeing some current and/or former Golden Bears compete for Olympic Gold in Rio in 2016!

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


Absolutely. I see many of them on a weekly basis and keep in touch with many who are not in the bay area.

22. Do you still follow Cal Rugby?


Without a doubt! I am friends with a handful of the current players and I always look forward to the twitter scoring threads and game recaps each week if I can't see the match in person. With the team traveling most of this year with Witter Rugby Field unavailable, I haven't been able to catch as many games in person as I would have liked this year.

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


I didn't graduate all that long ago so I don't think it has changed all that much, especially considering Coach Clark and Coach Billups are still the coaches. They continue to successfully develop young student athletes and provide a competitive sporting experience.

24. How has rugby in general changed since you played it at Cal?


It seems like there are more programs out there which are putting together quality teams, through better fundraising and with more incoming athletes familiar with the game. Since I graduated there has been a steady growth in rugby among high school age players and younger. Some colleges are taking advantage of that growth and putting a more consistent product on the field, with more prospective students looking to continue playing while in college. With the inclusion of 7s in the Olympics there is more attention to the game in the US. The added attention can translate into commercial opportunity, as was the case with the IRB Sevens Circuit signing on a title sponsor for the first time ever. The circuit is also projected to have its highest overall tournament circuit attendance. Domestically, networks like NBC, Universal, BBC America and ESPN have begun broadcasting some college7s tournaments and international games and tournaments.

 

Position Questions - Outside Center


1. The outside center has been referred to as the "rapiers" of the Cal system. What do people mean by that?


In almost all defensive situations in rugby, the first areas a defending team will position its players to defend are the areas closest to the ball, mostly because these areas are also the easiest to attack (As an attacker, if no one is not defending near the ball, all you have to do is pick up the ball and run). Because a lot of rugby is about controlling field position, defending teams will also position players, usually their wings and fullback, deep behind their defensive line to protect those areas from probing kicks from the attack. The net result of these defensive tactics is that there is space that is relatively undefended further away from tackle/source of possession in the outside center and/or wing attacking channels of the field.

If the ball if delivered effectively to the outside center before allowing the inside defense to reach the outside channels then the defending outside center is left to choose whether to defend the offensive outside center or drift onto the fullback/wing. As an outside center, if the defender chooses to commit to me then I would pass the ball to the fullback or wing, who would be left with a one-on-one situation with the defensive wing (who would be moving forward from his kick defending situation...not an enviable position as a defender). If the defending outside center drifts early to eliminate the outside threat of the fullback/wing, he exposes the interior of the defense, which a good outside center will run through (hence the "rapier"). Against better teams like BYU and UBC, that gap closes faster with the inside center covering across. Fortunately, Cal has had many good runners at inside center (Ryan Donnelly was one, in my day) and in the forwards, whose offensive threat prevents the defending inside center and other defenders close to the source of possession from drifting early to help defend the outside.

2. What is the role of the outside center in the open field?

 



Offensively, execute and support any plays the fly-half calls. From those plays it is his job to create line breaks and support any line breaks of his teammates. To help the fly-half make informed decisions, the outside center can also communicate any defensive weaknesses he sees from his perspective (the fly-half is the ultimate play caller but the outside center may see something in the defense from his angle which the fly-half can't. In addition, the fly-half has added responsibilities such as communicating his position to and receiving the ball from the scrum-half).
Defensively, to operate as a unit and within our defensive system to defend the attacking play.

3. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals in the open field?


Communicate early; run onto the ball (with the proper angle); depending on the play called, to manage your space from the defense (so that you have time to pass, if the undefended space is out wide, for example). As a unit the backs will try to identify the areas that are undefended or tendencies of the defense and call and execute plays that best attack those weaknesses.

4. Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as an outside center?


The general skill set for outside center is pretty similar to other backs. Everyone needs to pass, catch, carry the ball, tackle and ruck. There are some drills that can help an outside center pass under pressure and make the correct decision (pass or run), but those drills are also useful to other backs as well.

5. What originally got you interested in being an outside center?


My skill set was initially best for this position. I was fast enough to usually get outside my man or cut underneath him if he drifted and my passing was good enough to deliver accurate passes while dealing with the decreased time before contact you often have with the ball.

6. Are there any other positions you like to play besides outside center?


I also played fly-half, which I enjoyed. For a couple of games I played inside center as well.

7. Is there anything about your body that makes you a natural fit for an outside center?


Not really. Most people I played against were bigger than me so I relied on my speed, elusiveness and knowledge of the game to create an advantage over my opponents.

8. What is your role during a scrum?


Outside centers aren't directly involved in the scrum. On offense, your role is obtain what the play call is from the fly-half and position yourself accordingly. Even if the next play does not directly involve you, your positioning can act as a decoy to help set up certain match ups in. In defense, your positioning can dictate where the opposition attacks and is integral for the defensive system to be executed properly.

9. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals during a scrum?


Move to your attacking and defending positions early and give and receive communication related to which scheme will be executed.

10. What is your role during a line out?


Outside centers aren't directly involved in the lineout. As the lineout is setting up, backs will position themselves in the appropriate attacking or defensive position.


11. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals during a line out?


Move to your attacking and defending positions early and give and receive communication related to which scheme will be executed.

 

 

 

Many thanks to Rob Weedon for those amazing answers!  GO BEARS!

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