Interview With Cal Rugby Alum - John Buchholz

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We're taking a jaunt through the entirety of a rugby team.  And not just any rugby team, but the Cal rugby team!  We've talked with Marc TausendScott AndersonRay LehnerMichael Freeman, Rob WeedonJoel DiGiorgio, Andrew Blair, and Michael MacDonald.

Today, we have another talk with a Cal Rugby Alum.  We are talking with John Buchholz, who, like many of the people we are talking to in this series is a globally accomplished rugger.  Mr Buchholz didn't just win National Championships with Cal, he represented America on both the All-American rugby team and the US National Rugby Team.  He played in the Rugby World Cup, helping America defeat Japan in 2003.  USA!  USA!  USA!  He's an American hero!  

He also played the fullback position.  We asked him a lot about the fullback position, so we can better understand what is going on out there!  John Buchholz was kind enough to write this introduction for us:

My name is John Buchholz. I started playing rugby in 1997 in my senior year of high school. I initially wasn't interested in the game as I was a soccer player, but after my first season of rugby I never played organized soccer again. I instantly fell in love with the game. After high school I played at Cal, and even then I was reluctant to play in college because I was intimidated by Cal's reputation. I played for four years at Cal, and my performance at Cal earned me selection to the U-19 All-American team, the Collegiate All American team, and eventually selection to the US National 15s and 7s sides. The highlight of my career was being selected to the be a part of the US Team that competed in Australia in the Rugby World Cup. Between 2001 and 2004 I played for the US National Team while also playing for San Francisco's Olympic Club. In 2004 I played for a club in Brisbane Australia before coming to Sacramento and starting law school. I currently have my own law practice and coach a local youth rugby team. Because this game has given me so much, I want to give back to the game and give local youth the same opportunities that I had.

After the jump, check out his answers about Cal rugby, fullback, the All-American team, and the US National team.  Lots here!  Many thanks to John Buchholz and GO BEARS!

1.  What got you interested in playing rugby initially?

Initially I wasn't interested in playing rugby. I had played soccer previously, and my high school rugby coach eventually persuaded me to try out rugby. Though reluctant to even play it at first, it soon became my only sport and I never played organized soccer again.

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

Even though I enjoyed playing rugby in high school, I didn't think I would keep playing in college. I intended on just pursuing my studies at Cal. Unbeknownst to me, the same high school coach who persuaded me to try rugby in the first place had sent a few game tapes to Cal's coaching staff. Cal coach Jerry Figone contacted me over the phone and persuaded me to give Cal Rugby a shot. It was one of the best decisions I've ever made.

3.  What is the rugby recruitment process like?

For me it was pretty informal, just a couple phone calls and a visit to one of the practices. I was intimidated by the whole Cal setup, because I had come from a new high school program and was pretty new to the sport in general, but I could see how well coached the team was after watching just one practice. I had been admitted to Cal on academics and intended on enrolling by the time the "recruitment" had happened, so perhaps I wasn't recruited. Cal's reputation as a fantastic program and a world-class academic institution does the recruiting for itself.

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

We didn't have a "frosh-sophs" team necessarily, it was just a second side. I did play on the second side for the first few games of my freshman year, but after that I played on the first side.

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

I was a sponge at that point, learning a ton. Although we didn't necessarily get the reps at practice as the guys on the first side, it was still a time to really learn.

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

Before practice even started, I would always arrive early to practice on my kicking. Once practice actually started, there would be a warm up and stretching. After that the team would work on certain skill sets, such as passing, rucking, linking, tackling, mauling, etc. Each drill would be a very skill-specific drill. After working on certain skill sets, the team would break off into forwards and back, and forwards would work on scrums and lineouts while the backs would work on backline moves. Often times after the forwards and backs separated the whole team would come together for a few full team reps. Fitness would often be a component of practice.

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

Weightlifting was mandatory, so I'm not sure if that is considered "outside" of rugby practice. Weightlifting was mandatory even in the offseason.

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

Pre-game: We would wake up early and set up the field, meaning we'd put up the goalpost pads, put up the banners, and line the field with pads. We'd report back about an hour and a half before the game to warm up, stretch, and get a few reps in, either in Memorial Stadium or what was then Kleeburger. We'd throw on a our jerseys in the locker room at Memorial, have a quick huddle, and then walk up the Memorial stairs to the western entrance of Witter Field. I never did any superstitious things personally, or listened to music like some others. For about an hour before games I would always feel very nervous to the point where I got really thirsty, had to pee all the time, and was always pacing. I got really quiet, and totally lethargic. Some guys would be bouncing off the walls and pumping themselves up by being loud. I was the exact opposite. Once the whistle blew though, I didn't feel nervous or lethargic anymore.

Post-game: After cleaning up we always hosted the opposition at some place. Usually it was a frat house. We'd have the guys over, give them some food and some beer, and that was basically it. At night sometimes there'd be a party or people would head out to the bars.

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

There wasn't any incident or even that I loved most, it was just the experience as a whole. It was always fantastic at the end of a season to step back, remember the hard work, the practice, the 6:30 am sprints, the weightlifting sessions, the hard practices, and realize that the hard work paid off.

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

University of British Columbia, I think either 1999 or 2000 in Vancouver. We had a very slim margin in the dying minutes of the game, and they were pounding our goal line. Somehow we had a 10 or 15 minute goal line stand that I will never forget.

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

Any "intimidation" I might have done would just simply have been my play. I never engaged in any dirty play, or shit talking, or anything like that. We were always a very well disciplined team and we played really hard but we played fair. As I mentioned above, often times before games I was very quiet. The same applied to the rugby field, meaning I would be vocal and communicate with my teammates, but I wouldn't do anything to try and intimidate the opposition other than just play hard.

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

After about 10 minutes of watching a game, any fan should be able to tell what a team's strengths and weaknesses are. After that, see how each team plays to its strengths. For example, every team usually has a good kicker, a hard runner, the best tackler, etc.

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

There was no one moment in particular, but over the course of four years we spent a lot of time together at practice, on the bus, in airports, on planes, in hotels, etc. There were always jokes, etc. If I had to choose the moment though, it was probably when I heard Coach Figone tell the team the definition of "relative humidity" on one of the bus trips.

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

I think it may have been my last game of my last year. We had just won the national championship against Penn State, and in four years I had four titles. Knowing that I was able to play a very brief part in a storied program was very humbling and satisfying.

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

I had one or two bad shoulder injuries that put me out for about 6 weeks each. I've had to get a couple of surgeries since. One of the injuries occurred the week we were supposed to play BYU, a team that we never played because they don't play on Sundays which is when the National Championship game was held. Everyone was getting ready to play BYU, including me, but I then dislocated my shoulder. I was pretty distraught I couldn't play.

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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?

To get where the Cal Men's Program is today took a long time. Alumni donations were made, an endowment was set up, paid coaches were instituted, the program got varsity status, the fieldhouse was funded and built, etc. It would be impossible to get that type of infrastructure for a woman's team overnight. Regardless of the infrastructure though, everyone in the Cal Men's team works extremely hard, from the coaches to the players to the management. That's the true reason for the success of the program: hard work. If I was the coach of the women's team, that's where it would have to begin: hard working players, dedicated staff that is willing to put in long days.

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

I tell to anyone who will listen that my true education at UC Berkeley came on the rugby field. When they ask me to elaborate, I tell them playing rugby took more work than classroom work. It teaches you to work with others to a common goal and to focus on the task at hand, both of which are necessary in a career.

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?

It was very disheartening to see the program get demoted. There would certainly be a difference between Varsity Club and Varsity. If there was no difference, why would the administration even make the distinction? The administration certainly had a reason for making the distinction, and thankfully we never got to see it play out. The decision was reversed after a strong showing of alumni support. It only took a few months to reverse the decision, and I think the whole thing could probably have been avoided if the administration had tried to garner support before it swung the axe.

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?

Injuries are just part of the game, and some of them are serious. It's impossible to play the game without getting injured in some way. Though I never played football, I think rugby is safer. Without pads, players don't turn themselves into human missiles like they do in football. Also, rugby has a few tackle rules which make the game safer: no tackling above the shoulders, one must attempt to "wrap" the ball carrier, and no player can be hit while he is airborne. Because of the rules of rugby, it's very rare that anyone will be blindsided and unprepared to take a hit. In football, those rules don't exist. Watch any NFL game and watch any professional rugby game. The hits in an NFL game make you shudder more. I know at Cal we had a top notch medical staff and training staff, so injuries were always handled quickly, safely, and professionally. Unfortunately, a lot of teams around the country don't have that type of medical support.

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

I love 7s! It's more suited to a player like me. I'm 5'10" 175 lbs., so I was never a physically dominating player in the 15s version of the game. 7s allowed for more running, more sprints, a lot of passing, a lot of creativity, and a try can come from anywhere at anytime. Those were my strengths, so I really liked 7s. 7s also allows for big tournaments, which is difficult to have in 15s rugby. I was fortunate to play on the IRB 7s circuit for a couple years, and it was amazing. 16 teams from around the world, competing in various places around the world. Because the games are so short, 7s allows for an entire day of non-stop rugby with many teams competing. That's just not possible in 15s. This is probably why when rugby gets reintroduced to the Olympics in 2016 it will be rugby 7s, not 15s.
Although I personally like rugby 7s, I can see some purists not liking it. There are a lot of tactics involved in a 15s game. When to kick, how to kick, jockeying for field position, lineout moves, scrum moves, etc. In 7s, there is usually one plan: run with the ball. It's certainly what makes 7s exciting, but at the same time some of the tactics and intelligent play get lost.

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

A lot of them, yes.

22.  Do you still follow Cal Rugby?

Yes, and I always will.

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Position Questions: Fullback

1.  How important is kicking to the fullback position?

Very important. It's imperative fullbacks know how to use a variety of kicks. Often times fullbacks will find themselves all alone with no support and the opposition bearing down on him. Kicking is very important to alleviate pressure from the opposition and gain an advantage on field position. Kicking is also used as an offensive weapon.

2.  What tactics do you use to prepare for the perfect kick?

Consistency. When kicking I was often on the run or under pressure, so I wasn't allowed to take my time and prepare. By holding the ball the same and dropping it the same and swinging my leg the same every time helped.

3.  What is the role of the fullback in the open field?

On offense: attack from anywhere and everywhere, create plays, and be an outside threat to score tries.
On defense: make open field tackles, catch opposition kicks and maintain possession, communicate with the two wings to create a secondary defensive line.

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

On defense, anticipate what the opposition will do. If I can see their players lining up for a kick, I will try and position myself and my wings to better counter-attack after the kick. Half of the job comes with being in a good position to start a counter-attack. With regard to offense, the trick is FINDING the open field, because fullbacks and wings just want to run in open space. If a backline can create open space, the fullbacks and wings will have a great day.

5.  Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as a fullback?

Kicking was the main one.

6.  What originally got you interested in being a fullback?

Because of my soccer background I think it was a natural fit. Also, I was one of the smaller, fitter, faster players, which fullback is suited for. I would be absolutely useless as a lock or prop.

7.  Are there any other positions you like to play besides fullback?

I really like flyhalf. It's like the quarterback of the backline, and you make a lot of plays, you also kick a lot, you order the other backs around. A good flyhalf can really dictate the pace of the game.

8.  Is there anything about your body that makes you a natural fit for a fullback?

I was always pretty fit and decently fast which certainly helped.

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9.  What is the feeling like in the open field when you are the sole thing keeping an opposing player from scoring?

That may have been my least favorite part of the game. It's like being a goalie on a penalty kick. Sometimes, there's just nothing you can do! There are tricks I used to help, such as using the sideline to my advantage and forcing the player to one side or another, which bought time for my team to retreat and help out.

10.  It does not appear that you are directly involved in a scrum. What is your role in a scrum?

Be in a position to attack after the ball comes out of the scrum if it's our ball.
If it's the opposition's ball, be in a position to defend against a kick.

11.  What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals while the scrum is occurring?

Once a scrum happens, there will be a play called. Simply knowing what play it is and knowing my role in the play is imperative.

12.  It does not appear that you are directly involved in line outs. What is your role during a line out?

Same as with a scrum, know what play is called and my role in the play.

13.  What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals while a line out is occurring?

Just knowing my role and executing it.

 


All-American Team

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

It was certainly a big honor.

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

The US is divided up into different territorial unions. For example there was the Pacific Coast, Mid-Atlantic, South, Midwest to name a few. The best collegiate players in those particular unions were selected to represent their territories in tournament at the end of the collegiate season. The All-Americans were chosen from that tournament. However, there were other ways to be chosen. For example I had actually been selected to the US National team prior to my selection to the All American team which isn't the typical route.

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

We had about 3 days of practice in New York City prior to leaving for Ireland. Once arriving in Ireland we had a few days of double days, meaning two practices per day. Afterwards we played against Trinity College and University College of Dublin. This was in 2001.

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

I can't point to one specific moment, but will simple state that the favorite moment was the honor of being chosen.

5.  How did it feel representing America abroad?

Again, it was a huge honor. There is something indescribable about being overseas with a handful of other Americans and working towards a common goal.


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

I don't really have enough experience to really speak to that. I know the All-Americans have had some successful tours and have beaten some quality opponents. Many teams overseas wouldn't expect that from an American side. The reputation of American rugby overseas isn't really conveyed through the All-American team, but rather through the National Team itself, the Eagles.

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

Luckily the coach for the Ireland tour was Tom Billups, the assistant coach at Cal. He instituted a similar system into the All American team that we had at Cal so automatically I had an advantage. However, what helped the most wasn't just knowledge of the system, it was simply being used to hard work and knowing I would have to work everyday to be a good player. Many college teams only practice once or twice a week and then play on Saturdays. At Cal we practiced everyday which certainly helped us prepare for the rigors of the All American tour.

 


US National Team

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

I can safely say this is the biggest honor of my rugby career. To be selected to the National Team means, at that moment, you are one of the best 25 or so players in the entire country.


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

There are numerous routes to the US National Team. Most of the players come from domestic club teams based all over the country. Some others advance to the team through the college ranks. Some others actually were born, live, and play overseas but qualify to play for the team due to family lineage. There aren't really "tryouts" so to speak. Rather, the coaching staff scouts all over the country.

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

Rigorous to say the least. There would always be two practices a day leading up to a test match. However due to budget constraints and the fact that most of the players are amateurs, have other full time jobs, the amount of time the National Team can actually assemble is very precious. In my opinion it would be difficult to have real cohesion just because it's limited. Typically, the team would have about a week together prior to a match. If the team was in tournament like the Churchill Cup or the Pan-Am games perhaps it would be two weeks.

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

Beating Japan in the 2003 World Cup.

5.  How did it feel representing America abroad?

Certainly it's a huge honor, a similar feeling as being on the All-American side, but because it's the top team in the country the feeling is enhanced. There is something very special about being on foreign soil representing your home country with a handful of teammates.

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

The US is currently ranked 16th in the world. It's classified as a "2nd tier" nation. Basically, the best teams are placed into the 1st tier and below those 10 or so teams is the 2nd tier. The US has certainly gained some respect with some quality overseas performances. However, I think before some other countries really sit up and take notice we have to have a scalp. That is, we need to upset a team in the 1st tier. This has yet to happen. If we pull together and defeat a team like France or England then people will really take notice.

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

Work ethic. Playing for the US National Team was the most challenging thing I've ever done. Playing for Cal prepared me for it in a way I didn't really appreciate until afterwards. No other collegiate program really puts in the hours that Cal does, and having that type of professional infrastructure really did help me take on the challenges of playing for the National Team.

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

Yes. If being selected to the National Team was the biggest honor of my rugby career, then certainly playing in the World Cup was the biggest honor of the biggest honor! Every World Cup has 20 participating teams, and each time is allowed 30 players. Like the Soccer World Cup, the Rugby World Cup occurs ever four years. This means that every four years, only 500 players in the entire world are selected to play in the Rugby World Cup. To be able to say that I was one is an indescribable honor.

 

Many thanks to John Buchholz for answering all these questions!  GO BEARS!

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