Interview With A Cal Rugby Alum - Joel DiGiorgio

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, and Rob Weedon.  Tons of great interviews, but we still have so many more!  

Today, we're talking with Joel DiGiorgio.  He played scrumhalf for Cal.  What is the scrumhalf, you ask?  Great question!  Mr. DiGiorgio answers that here, too!  Plus, he was named to the All-American team.  So, he answers some question about that.  

Basically, this is your one stop shopping for all things Cal rugby.  After the jump, learn more!  Many thanks to Joel DiGiorgio!  GO BEARS!

1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?


My high school, Piedmont High, had and still has the oldest single-school rugby program in the State of California, known as the Piedmont International Touring Side (P.I.T.S. Rugby). Year after year, the upperclassman take a lot of pride in the program and it's almost expected that football players strap on the rugby boots the day after they put their pads down. I owe my old high school coach, John "Nhoj" Cullom, a huge amount of gratitude for dedicating his life to the game and our personal development. Nhoj taught us to appreciate the bond that all rugby players share, and he welcomed us into the nonpareil brotherhood that international rugby truly is.

 

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


I grew up 10 minutes from Witter Rugby Field and I had the privilege of watching CAL RUGBY from 7th to 12th grade. I was, and still am, a huge CAL sports fan. I was a water boy for the football team as well as a sweat boy for the basketball team during the early 90's. I also attended Jack Clark's Rugby Camp for three consecutive summers which definitely helped me catch the eye of the coaching staff. Lastly, my high school teammate, Matt Sherman, transferred from a small Midwestern college to CAL to play rugby when I was a Junior at PHS. Matt made playing rugby at CAL a potential reality for all of us. If he hadn't made that transition, I might not have pursued CAL as aggressively as I did.

3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?


When I was recruited, back in 1999-2000, it didn't seem too sophisticated. The program and coaches seemed to focus on local talent as well as players that were "coachable" and would represent the program honorably, on and off the field. At that time, Jack Clark's Rugby Camp seemed to represent 80-90% of the recruitment process.

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


There wasn't really a "Frosh-Sophs" team when I played. We had a very strong and capable B-Side (2nd team), but there was so much internal competition that many upperclassmen secured the 1-15 jerseys. As a Freshman, I played minimal minutes as the 3rd scrumhalf on the depth chart. I only started one game, which was against a division 3 team, so I was extremely fortunate to earn my Varsity Letterman that year (I was shocked and extremely honored).

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


The word "average" isn't really in the CAL RUGBY vernacular, so it's hard to say what the average practice was like. In general, we never really knew what to expect, except the fact that we knew we would be pushed to our physical and mental limits. Some of us would get so nervous and anxious before practice that we would make predictions on what type of practice it would be based on how many empty coffee cups we saw in Coach Clark's office, or if he was wearing long pants with a polo shirt or athletic shorts and a dry-fit top, the latter meant we were in trouble...

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



ZERO. CAL RUGBY is a 24-7-365 type of job. Consistent Olympic weight lifting, track intervals, sprints, runs up the Fire Trail and infamous "Connector" were all auxiliary examples of "rugby practice". This type of mentality, one that doesn't allow you to take short cuts or indulge in a traditional off-season, keep us focus on the goal at hand and it prevented us from misrepresenting the program off the field. With that said, we may have still slipped up once or twice, but we always learned from our mistakes, collectively, and we still had more than a good time socially, we just had to earn our right to relax.

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


If you weren't in the starting XV, you generally had to be up at the field around 10am for setup, which usually took about an hour with 40 or so players helping out (i.e. it's a lot of work). Once the pylons, championship banners, bleachers, flags, sideline fencing and pads, etc were all up, the players who were in "deep reserve" would then set up their individual stations which we would work during the game The various jobs, such as manning the ticket booth, scoreboard, ball boys, water boys, etc. were all part of the plan, with each of us playing our individual and communal roles.

If I was fortunate enough to be in the Starting XV on home game day, I would generally go up to the pitch around 10am to stretch and practice my pass and box kick. It helped me release some anxiety and it allowed me to visualize what I would be performing a few hours later. I would also check the grass and wind to make sure I had my bearings and proper equipment for game time (i.e. the right boots). At roughly 10:45 I would then eat a small meal of full grain oats or granola and a banana, for example, as I made my way up to the training room in Memorial Stadium. I would then try to get loose by stretching and doing a minimal amount amount of cardio, just to get the blood flowing. If I needed any treatment, such as ankle taping, I would do it between 11am and 11:30. We usually met as a team in visitor's locker room in the stadium to discuss our team strategy for the match. At 12pm we would begin our pre-game warm ups and run through our plays, which often took place in the narrow cement hallways of the stadium. This was a strategy of Coach Clark's as it put us under additional pressure and it prepared us for any unorthodox warm up areas that we might encounter during an away or playoff game.

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


Simple: The life lessons. The skills I learned as a CAL Varsity Rugby player were directly and immediately transferable in the business world. Skills such as preparation and leadership ("making those around you better and more productive") helped me separate myself from my cohorts in the business world, and my newly ingrained tenacity and fortitude definitely propelled me forward as a business professional.

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


There are three that are worth mentioning:
1) Air Force, 2003. We lost this game, to a team that wanted it more on that day. Yes, we did sit 5 All-Americans for this game (I was one of them, I ended up going in right before halftime), but we were outplayed at all facets of the game so we can't use that as an excuse. Air Force played out of their skins and their performance honestly inspires me to this day. I wish it hadn't happened on our watch, especially for our seniors, but that loss ended up making most of us much better players and teammates. Fortunately, I had two more years to compete for national championships.

2) Cal Poly, 2004. We beat the best and most well-rounded collegiate team I ever played against, to bring the National Championship Title back to Berkeley. Full marks must go out to that Cal Poly team. To field a team with that much size, speed and skill, at a school that doesn't recruit and isn't really known for sports, is more than impressive. Cal Poly may not have beat us on that day, but they proved that underdogs really can beat the odds and compete with the perennial powers. What's even more impressive is that they almost beat us even though all 15 of their starters played 80 minutes of intense rugby only 24 hours earlier against the reining National Champions, the Air Force Academy.


To beat Cal Poly for the title, we had to play our best rugby of the year, and luckily we did. The game was intense from start to finish and both squads had to play with injured players. Two of Cal Poly's top players (John Kennard & Tony Petruzella) fought through devastating injuries to stay on the pitch (torn knee & broken hand, respectively). For me personally, this was one of my proudest days, hands down. I, like Tony, had to play with a badly broken hand, which I had injured two weeks earlier in our Elite 8 match against North Carolina. Twenty minutes before kickoff, one of the coaches pulled me aside and had me prove that I could catch and pass, which at that time I could do, but I wasn't very graceful to say the least. Once the whistle blew, however, I never felt an ounce of pain. I had to make do with wobbly passes and one-handed tackles, but I still believe to this day that I never played a better game for any team in any sport than I did on that sunny afternoon in Palo Alto. The personal pride from that performance and victory, combined with the support I felt from my teammates, is core to my character to this day.

3) Every game versus UBC, 2000-05. UBC plays an extremely physical and blue collar version of rugby. They were the strategic antithesis of us, at that time. We played a pattern of rugby that emphasized what ruggers call "quick ball", while the Thunderbirds single tactic seemed to do the exact opposite: ruck, ruck and ruck some more. Their relentless assault at EVERY breakdown (tackle) slowed the game dramatically and often took us out of our comfort zone. If they could get us flustered and off our pattern, they had a chance to beat us. We fortunately only lost the World Cup once while I was at CAL, but every game against UBC, no matter what the final score ended up reading, was an all out war.

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


Stanford did that for us...

(TwistNHook Note:  Joel is referencing the fact that Stanford once forfeited to Cal Rugby rather than play them.  How embarrassing!)

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


First, they should take note of the diversity of body types. Rugby is game for the big and tall as well as the short and skinny, just take a look at the typical starting XV. There's a very unique irony in rugby as every player has a specified role and skill set, but at the same time, every player is expected to have all the skills of the guy next to them, a term know by CAL players as "all skills, all players". In other words, a scrumhalf (#9) generally needs to be shorter in order to pass the ball directly from the ground, while a lock (#4 & #5) generally needs to be long and tall, in order to support the front row in scrums but also to be lifted above the opposition in lineouts. With that said, once you're in open play a lock still needs to be able to pass and catch like a back (#9-15).

Second, keep your eye on the ball and follow it as a player goes into a tackle. See what the ballcarrier does once he/she hits the ground. Watch what the opposition does, and watch what the ballcarrier's support players (teammates) do. If you pay attention, you'll see how much of the game is played in those 3 or 4 seconds. How a team plays in these moments can change the outcome dramatically (i.e. UBC).

Thirdly, notice how the best teams and players act in true selflessness. Observe how many hands touch the ball before a try is scored. Notice how often the player who scores the try does the lowest amount of overall work. Appreciate the importance of "ball retention" and the instinct of a player to ruck and clear possession instead of looking for personal glory. Embrace the reality that there aren't touchdown dances or "look at me moments" when a try is scored. A try is almost always a true team effort.

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


Can't be said in public...

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


Bringing the National Championship trophy back to Berkeley.

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



Losing to Air Force, 2004 and letting the program down on a personal mistake I made off the pitch.

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?


Put the University first, team second, and self third. Use success on the pitch, along with fitness to get recruits interested. Utilize Rugby 7's in the 2016 Olympics as a catalyst in recruiting top athletes on campus and out of high school. Get involved with the community and make a name for the program. Earn the best academic achievements possible. Continue to work with the Men's program in an effort to become a Varsity Program.

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 and still is a very unfortunate situation. All I can say is removing CAL Rugby from Varsity status would not have helped the University's budget or Title IX issues, it would've actually had negative consequences.  This has been proven (self funded, loss of profitable revenues, the creation of a Varsity Women's Program, etc.).   In retrospect, now that we've been reinstated along with Women's Lacrosse and Baseball, this hiccup might have actually been one of the best things to happen to CAL Varsity Rugby as we galvanized into an even stronger base, as well as gained national exposure and support. Thousands and thousands of people who had never heard of CAL Varsity Rugby now not only know of us, they follow and support us. There are now parents on the East Coast and in the greater Midwest that might encourage their children to play rugby as it could help them get into the greatest public university in the world, as it did for me.

At a minimum, we proved the importance of fighting for what you believe is right, no matter how immense the obstacle may be, and it brought a tight nit community even closer together. We, as CAL Varsity Rugby and UC BERKELEY alumni, are now focusing on reinstating the international acclaim and respect that our great institution deserves and has enjoyed for the past century. Lastly, and most importantly, a big thanks needs to go out to the current coaching staff, our proud and generous alumni, and the current players for all the time and money they donated towards this campaign. Thank you to the alumni, who opened their ears, then their hearts, then their wallets. Thank you to the coaches for their relentless tenacity, and for charging forward as if failure was never an option. Finally, thank you to the current players for brushing the drama aside, succeeding without Witter Field, and striving for another national championship.

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?


High risk = High reward. Humans, especially men, need physical outlets especially those that are "tribal" in nature (i.e. communal sacrifice, internal competition, protecting those you love and respect, etc). It's hard to say if rugby is safer or more dangerous than football. What I can say as a former rugby and football player is that there's a different mentality in rugby vs football. Most importantly, you can't get hit in rugby unless you have the ball or are competing for it, unlike football when you're vulnerable at all time.

The worst hits I ever took in football were the ones away from the ball that I didn't see coming (the crack back, for example). Also, you're often put in much more dangerous situations in football, ones where you're basically defenseless, such as when a receiver is hit while reaching out to catch a pass. This can happen in rugby as well, but it's much more rare and often at lower impact speeds. In addition, rugby players can use techniques to decrease their vulnerability, such as jumping in the air to catch a kick (you can't hit a player in the air). Lastly, tackling techniques differ between the two sports as well, which plays a role as well. In football you're taught to tackle with your head across the opponents body, using your opposite shoulder from your front leg (left should with right leg forward), this in theory allows you to drive through the ballcarrier and ideally push them back or prevent them from gaining that extra inch or yard.


This tactic seems to work with pads on, but the same can't be said in rugby. Without pads, this tackling technique is too dangerous so ruggers are taught to tackle with their heads on the outside of the ballcarrier's body, using the same shoulder as your front leg (right shoulder, right leg). This technique is arguably more effective as it allows the tackler to be in more control, and it decreases risk of a neck or back injury. From my personal experience, both are effective techniques, but the rugby tackle seems to be safer as well as more effective overall as it allows the tackler to have a stronger base as well as a better angle on the ballcarrier. If players master this technique, as well as always wear a custom mouthguard, they should greatly reduce their risk of concussions, which are already less frequent in rugby than in football.

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


I think it's a great alternative, and we should invest more attention to it here in the US. It's high impact, high excitement and much less strategic or confusing to watch. It should be used as a stepping stone towards traditional Union Rugby, which is what CAL plays. In my opinion, Rugby Sevens is like checkers and Rugby Union is like Chess. Sevens is straight forward, easy to play (pending fitness and minimal skills), and pretty simple while Rugby Union is much more strategic, more demanding mentally and much harder to master. Just compare chess pieces to checkers: checker pieces are all the same, similar to the body types you see on a sevens team (usually every player is tall, lean and fast). Chess pieces, on the contrary, come in all shapes and sizes and all have their individual roles, much like numbers 1-15 on a Rugby Union squad.

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


Yes, but I'd love to see them more often and possible field a team to play in a tournament every year...

22. Do you still follow Cal Rugby?


Yes, on Twitter, SaveCalRugby.com and on Calbears.com

 

 


Position Questions: Scrumhalf:

1. The scrumhalf appears to be the link between forwards and backs. How do you keep the momentum going from the forwards to the backs?


It's less about keeping momentum going and more about communication. The scrumhalf must manage the pack (the forwards, #1-8) and ensure ball security first and foremost. Second, and just as importantly, the scrumhalf must deliver precise and quick passes to the flyhalf. Communicating direction and strategy to the forwards while simultaneously communicating with the flyhalf and backs is the most challenging requirement of class scrumhalf.

2. What is the role of the scrumhalf in the open field?


Mostly what I said in question #1, but to be more precise the scrumhalf must be one of the first players to EVERY breakdown (tackle) both offensively and defensively, which requires immense fitness as well as timing and proper running angles. Once at an offensive breakdown, the scrumhalf much decide whether the possession is suitable as "quick ball" or "slow ball", which is based on numbers (do we have more players on their feet then the other team does), as well as quality of the possession (is the ball clean and ready to be passes or are there bodies and hands all over it). This decision must be made within a few seconds so this skill takes years to master. Once the decision is made a tactic must be applied. If it's a quick ball scenario, which is almost always ideal, the scrumhalf must quickly glance at the flyhalf to make sure he/she is ready as well as gauge their distance in order to place a perfect pass (which should be out in front of the running receiver).

If the possession is deemed slow ball, there are several tactics that the scrumhalf should have in his/her arsenal. Ordering more forwards in to ruck and clean up the possession is one option, another option would be to have a supporting forward pick up the ball and "jam" it forward. If this tactic is used the scrumhalf must order the forwards to get off the ground and support the player jamming the ball forward. If a player jams the ball without support they will always lose possession if they're playing a strong opponent. You see this tactic a lot during a game as it's used to give playmakers time to get off the ground and out of a tackle and back into position. This "jam" tactic is almost always strategically used to buy time and improve a dirty possession. A high-performace and cerebral team should have at least three different slow ball tactics for the scrumhalf to choose from.


On defense, the scrumhalf's primary function is also organization, as well as acting somewhat like a sweeping safety in case a player breaks through the line of defense. The majority of the time, however, the scrumhalf should be about 3 meters away from the breakdown, ordering whoever is in the area into the necessary defensive positions, staring with the first defensive positions on both sides of the breakdown (often called the pilar or post position). Once the pilar is established the scrumhalf organizes the defense from the inside-out. Playing scrumhalf is extremely demanding physically (fitness, constantly yelling) as well as mentally (constantly reading the defense/offense).

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


Always look ahead and try to anticipate the type of possession. Have a plan before you get to the breakdown. Also, have confidence in your skills and instincts, they will take over for you, without you even thinking (practice, practice, practice...). Lastly, over communicate, always.

4. Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as a scrumhalf?


Always have a rugby ball in your hands, and I mean always. Buy a weighted pass-developing ball that you can use when you're watching TV or sitting around the house. I used to spend hours just spinning/throwing the ball straight up above my head from a standing or seated position. This dramatically strengthened my pass and accuracy and it boosted my confidence immensely. I also recommend getting one of those exercise equipment pieces that attach to a door and use resistant bands to build muscle. I spent at least 15 minutes per day practicing my pass technique using these bands, which also strengthened my pass and overall core. Lastly, master the box kick. It's fun to perform and it's a strategic skill to have in your tool box.

5. What originally got you interested in being an scrumhalf?


My height made me do it...I didn't really have a choice...I was an outside center in high school which is what I really wanted to be. But, I'm glad I did because I learned how to use my natural physical abilities to my advantage and I was able to master skills that no one else on the pitch could perform. Running and tackling hard at outside center would've only gotten me so far, if not the hospital (most centers or 6-6'4" in height and 200-240lbs, I was 5'8" and 190lbs).

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


#13!!!!

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


Already answered in #5, but being shorter also helped me with leverage and quickness. I used my leverage to get under bigger opponents and drive them backwards and I used my shorter legs to dart through small spaces. I could also box kick very quickly, which you can't do with long limbs...

8. What is your role during a scrum?



First off, the location of the scrum as well as the score and flow of the game always played a major role on which tactic I would use. On offense I would first call the play. I would then put the ball in straight when the hooker signals that he's ready, usually signaled with the hooker's left had, which should be squeezing the back of the loosehead prop's jersey.


On a defensive scrum I would have to decide whether to play the opposing scrumhalf, the opposing #8, or the opposing flyhalf. The choice would be based on the stability of the scrum, the quality of the opposing scrumhalf's passing skills, and the threat the opposing #8, scrumhalf and flyhalf each represented. If the scrumhalf seemed to be nervous or was having problems getting clean ball, I would play him to encourage a bad pass or take away possession. If the team had a powerful and active #8 I would play him first to ensure he couldn't get his momentum going or get past the gain line (using my leverage on #8s specifically was my favorite part of playing scrumhalf...the bigger they are, the harder they fall!). If our opponent had a savvy and/or fast flyhalf I would go straight for him to give us more help with our backline defense.

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


Communication and scouting

10. What is your role during a line out?


On offense, call the play, make sure all the forwards get in their correct positions. If the play was going to the back I would usually have to make a long-range pass to get the play started. This skill also took years of practice to perfect.


On defense I would usually guard the 5 meter line, meaning I was basically a safety that would prevent any trick plays.

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


Communication, scouting, survey the pitch, look for holes, determine which part of our pattern made the most sense for that area of the pitch.

 

14. There appear to be various different types of kicks. Can you take us through the different kicks and when/why you use certain ones?


Kicking in rugby is either for direct points (field goals) or for strategic field position. In a typical game I would make 4 or 5 "box kicks" which would ideally go roughly 30-40 meters high and about 20 meters in distance. The goal is to give your wing or trailers enough time to get under the kick to either gain possession or tackle the opposing wing or fullback. A perfectly placed box kick should result in a take away possession or the isolated opposing player to forced out of bounds, resulting in a turnover.

 

All-American Team


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


It was an honor and it's something I've extremely proud of to this day. Representing our country is something many athletes dream of achieving. I was no exception.

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


Earn a selection to the Pacific Coast Grizzlies (Pacific Coast All-Star Team) and perform well at the Collegiate All-Star Championships. If you stand out amongst your fellow all-stars you have a chance of being selected to the All-Americans

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


More about fitness, team cohesion, and team strategy.

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


Captaining the squad in 2005, especially when we beat the Old Boys of Wellington, New Zealand. Every National Anthem was special as well...especially the one against the Canadian U-21 team, which was played in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.

5. How did it feel representing America abroad?


It was a dream come true. It was such an honor and I felt privileged to be there. I knew I made that team because my coaches at CAL put the time into my personal development. Without their guidance and direction, I'm not sure I would've ever become an All-American. With that said, the best part of touring with the All-Americans, besides representing our country, was the chance to play along side many of the players I had respected as former opponents.

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


Not really sure. At that time, many foreigners seemed to think of Americans as hard tacklers with little skill or knowledge of the game.

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



Everything. Physical and mental toughness, both on and off the pitch, combined with a cerebral and focused approach to the game. Lastly, the leadership skills that we learn as CAL Varsity Rugby players taught us to lead by example, not through words only. Leadership at CAL is characterized as "making those around you better and more productive". By embracing this mantra, I was able to both connect and motivate the players I captained on the 2005 All-American squad that toured New Zealand. I continue to fall back on this principle in as much of my life as possible. This definition of leadership made me a better teammate then, and it continues to make me a better friend, co-worker, and husband today.

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