Interview with Cal Rugby alum, Tony Vontz

Tony Vontz

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 BlairMichael MacDonaldJohn Buchholz, and Louis Stanfill.  


Today, we are talking with Tony Vontz.  He played Rugby for Cal at the Hooker position.  Tony Vontz talks about his time at Cal, his journey to Berkeley, and the hooker position itself.  He was kind enough to lend some insight into himself:

Tony Vontz currently lives in San Francisco, CA, where he runs an apparel sales agency.  He writes a popular music and culture blog called Omnivulture at www.omnivulture.com.  You can follow Tony on twitter @tonyvontz.

This series is great for people like me trying to learn more about rugby the sport and CAL rugby the Berkeley institution.  Many thanks to Tony Vontz for being yet another amazing Cal rugger willing to take the time to answer this endless cavalcade of questions!  After the jump, check out his answers to our questions.  GO BEARS!



1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?


I remember watching a test match between USA and Wales on Fox Sports World in the summer of ‘96 or ‘97 with someone who played rugby locally. The game looked like it would be a lot of fun to play, and he encouraged me to try out for the team. I tried out, made the team, and have been involved with rugby in some capacity ever since.


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


Cal is one of the best universities in the world with the best rugby program in North America. It was a no brainer.


3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?


I think my experience was unique to most of the other guys in my recruiting class. At the time, almost the entire team came from northern California where youth rugby was and continues to be extremely strong. I'm from Kansas City, and had known about Cal and expressed to my high school coach how incredible it would be to play there. Fortunately, my high school coach had played on an All American team coached by Jack Clark, and had a good enough relationship with him and Jerry Figone to open up a dialog. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but I think he made the initial contact to Coach Clark expressing my desire to play for Cal. I had also been on the U19 National Team for a few years with a few other guys who were either already playing for Cal or were also being recruited, so they knew a bit about me. My grades and SAT score were good enough, and the coaching staff felt as though I could be a good asset to the team. Once that all fell into place, as I said before, it was a no brainer.


4. Did you play on the Frosh/Sophs Team as a freshman?


Yes, I did. I got enough time off the bench with the varsity team to earn a varsity letter, but I played mostly with the ‘B' team.


5. What was the experience like playing on the Frosh/Sophs team?


It's an honor to wear the jersey every time you pull it on, whether it is the ‘A' team or the ‘B' team. It's a good experience, and it helps in learning to play within the team pattern. Obviously every player wants to be starting for the ‘A' team, and I was no exception, but the path to that ‘A' team jersey begins with training hard everyday, and producing results in the ‘B' game.


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


In the beginning I would go straight from class up to the field. As I got older and picked up more injuries, I would typically have to be in the training room for about an hour before practice. Either way, I'd get to practice about 20 minutes early to have a bit of banter with the boys, get my mind right, work on individual skills and loosen up. That never changed.

At around 4 we would run our lap, then get straight into a dymanic/static warmup. After that it was almost always our five lines drill, which has been an essential part of Cal's success over the years. When five lines were completed, we'd get stuck into any number of drills, some as units (backs and forwards split up) some as team, always with a unifying principle or lesson. I don't want to give too many trade secrets away because the training sessions are where the championships are won and I know our competition is reading this!


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

By the time I got to Cal we were a full fledged varsity program with strength and conditioning coaches, off season training programs, and in season training every day but Monday. During the school year, the only thing I did to stay in shape that was not prescribed by the coaching staff was probably walking up and down the hill from class to my house! In the summer months we would have a training program as well. I was always pretty well covered.


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 are in the match day 22 for the varsity, you are required to be ready to go in the locker room an hour before kickoff. If you are not in the match day 22, you set up the field for the game. That means getting their around 9am and doing everything from setting up barricades to putting the championship banners on the fences.

Pre-game for me would entail lots of stretching, listening to music, and making sure that I had all of the proper food going down the hatch at the right time. I was always focused on trying to achieve that sweet spot of not being too amped up, and not too relaxed for the 1pm kickoff.

Post-game, the whole team breaks down the field. You turn your gear in, get whatever treatment you need to get, and then have a meal with the other team.


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

He provided me with the opportunity, confidence, resources, motivation and environment to reach my potential as a rugby player and person. I use the lessons he taught me everyday.


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

Cal Poly in the national championship of 2004. They were the biggest, hardest running and hitting team I ever played against in 12 years of rugby, including men's Super League rugby and overseas tours. They also had one of the best players I ever played against, Tony Petruzella.


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

We never had to do any smack talking, or perform a haka. That kind of stuff is nonsense. It's not part of our culture. I think it's pretty obvious that our record will always speak for itself. The most intimidating thing any rugby player or team can do is to never be outwardly tired during a game, and to always be smashing people in defense and the ruck area. That's enough intimidation.



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

People should pay closer attention to tactical kicking and how it has an affect on the game. I know people can immediately understand and appreciate the hard physical parts of the game, big tackles and hard charging runs, but I don't think people have any appreciation for how difficult it is to execute a perfectly weighted kick during the run of play and what an impact the sum of those great kicks have on the outcome of a game, especially when Cal plays a team like BYU or UBC.


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

There was one meeting in the Hall of Fame room my sophomore year that will go down in infamy with everyone who was there. Unfortunately that's all the detail I can give you. For what can be printed, I would have to say any time Lou Stanfill did his WWE pre-game routine or gave an interview. As for one single moment, I'll never forget Marc Tausend seizing up during a fitness test and collapsing on the track. I am laughing just thinking about that day. It looked like a sniper had shot out his legs on the last 50 meters of a run. If that was on Youtube it would have millions of hits. Truly one of the funniest things I have ever witnessed in person.


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

There are too many to even count. But, I'd have to say the first scrum against Cal Poly at the national championship in 2004. It happened in the first few minutes of the game. I don't remember who's put it in it was, but we thoroughly dominated them. It was a moment we had trained for every day for two months, and when we pulled our heads out of it, I knew we were going to win the game.


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

Losing to Air Force in the semi-finals of the national championship in 2003. That one still hurts.


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?

There is certainly no magic bullet, and it would take some time. I would emulate what Coach Clark has done with the men's program in terms of tactics and standards. I would also spend every minute that I was off the field working on getting the university to buy into and support what the team is doing. That has been a key to the success of the men's team.


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


It has been a tremendous asset. I utilize a lesson or tactic I learned from our coaching staff nearly every day. Everything we were taught has been transferable to the business world. I feel like I had a leg up on the competition after I graduated. It has also provided me with a fantastic network and support group.


18. How many national championships did you win? Really, just 4? Well, that's embarrassing!

It was 4 out of 5 for me. [Twist:  I thought I was just joking around when I put this question in, but then, well, yknow.]

19. 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 felt very let down by the whole process, especially in light of recent developments where every sport has been reinstated. I am not pretending to know the ins and outs or difficulties of running an athletic department of a large prestigious university, but I know a little bit about PR and marketing and from that standpoint it was a total nightmare. In my opinion, a club is a club. Varsity is varsity. There can be no asterisks and there can be no hybrid, so to answer your question, yes there is a huge difference between "varsity" and "varsity club." I am eternally grateful to Coach Clark and the alumni that stepped up to help fund reinstatement, I am angered and saddened that it ever had to come to that.


20. 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 am glad you asked this question. I would argue that rugby is a much safer game than football. Bottom line: if you're not wearing a helmet, you are going to take much better care of your head and your head placement in contact. If football adopted the tackle laws of rugby union, it would be a safer sport. In rugby the tackler must wrap his arms around the ball carrier. NFL style body check, shoulder charge tackles are illegal, and are usually result in a yellow card (10 minutes in the penalty box) for the offending player. In rugby you are taught to tackle with your head behind the player, in football I was always taught to lead with my head in the tackle. You tell me which technique is more dangerous.

Contact sports are inherently dangerous. I think that the laws of rugby union and the nature of the game mitigate the risk of long term severe brain injury better than football.

In the event of concussion, the Cal medical staff was always extremely professional and errored on the side of caution. I had two concussions while at Cal, and always felt well looked after. I never felt pressure to resume training before I was ready.


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

Legit form of rugby. I will always love 15s much more, but I enjoy watching sevens and am realistic about which code of the game will probably catch on faster in the US.


22. Do you play rugby post-graduation?

Yes, I played for one season before injuries caught up with me. I am also currently coaching rugby.


Position Questions - Hooker

1. How can you describe the experience of being in the middle of the scrum?

It's akin to being a center in football. You have to push like everyone else, but you have the added responsibility of making sure the ball makes it safely back to the right person. It can feel vulnerable at times, especially if the scrum collapses. If you're dominating your opposition, there isn't a better feeling in sports. If you're being dominated there isn't a worse feeling.


2. What interested you in being in the center of all that insanity?

I didn't really have a choice to be honest with you. I would much rather have been a flyhalf or #8, but I wasn't really blessed with the right body type. I'm not what you would call a "speed demon."


3. What is the craziest story from being in the middle of the scrum?

It's much more tame than you think it is. You are so focused on the job at hand that there isn't a lot of time for shenanigans. I guess the craziest thing that happened, or maybe just plain nastiest, was the time an opposition prop's cauliflower ear basically exploded on me. I pulled out of the scrum and had blood on the side of my face that wasn't mine, and was staring at an ear that looked like it had been hit with a meat tenderizer.


4. Is the hooker's purpose in the scrum to obtain the ball and throw it behind him to his team or is there something else you are attempting to accomplish?

Offensively you use your foot to "hook" the ball back to the #8 from the scrumhalf's hands. Once you have done that you work with the tighthead prop to turn the scrum so that your #8 and scrumhalf have a clear path to run whatever play has been called. Defensively you are working with the loosehead prop to put as much pressure on the opposition's tighthead prop as possible to disrupt their scrum and provide them with a poor platform for attack.


5. What tactics do you use to succeed at the scrum?

It is all about having a low body profile and a powerful base and a mindset of "i will not take a backwards step." I think being mentally tough is as important as being physically tough in the scrummaging department.


6. What is going through your mind during the scrum?

I always focused on the vocal triggers we had set up, and set little imaginary targets on my opposition for where I was going to put the pressure on.


7. When you are throwing the ball in on a line out, what is going through your mind?

It's like setting up for a free throw or a golf swing. You want your head clear, and you want your mechanics and pre-throw ritual to be the same every time. I focused on a target in the air and tried to hit that target every time.


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

I always thought it was be fun to play #8. You get the best parts of being a back and a forward, and a lot of freedom to run the ball in open space.


9. Is there anything special you do to prepare for being in the middle of the scrum?

I usually liked to be the first forward at the referee's mark, and I liked to be very demonstrative about what I wanted and how I felt because if something was wrong and the scrum collapsed it was my neck on the line. As a hooker you are kind of like the pilot of an airplane, checking all the systems before you take off to make sure everything is safe and ready.


10. Do you wish you could use your arms in a scrum?

Your shoulders are what is important, I'm not sure having your arms free would do you any good.


11. Is there anything about your body that naturally makes you more predisposed to playing the hooker position?

I did not have a typical hooker body at all, which always made scrummaging difficult for me. Usually hookers have what I like to call "squaty bodies." They are typically about 5'10" tall and 225 pounds. In my last game I was 6'1" and 245 pounds. Not ideal, but it worked out for me.

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