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 Tausend, Scott Anderson, Ray Lehner, Michael Freeman, Rob Weedon, Joel DiGiorgio, Andrew Blair, Michael MacDonald, John Buchholz, Louis Stanfill, and Tony Vontz.
Today, we are talking with Jacques Wilson. Hailing from San Francity, Mr. Wilson came over to help the California Golden Bears in both rugby and football. So, he is helpful in providing insight into both of those sports. Mr. Wilson currently resides in San Francisco and is putting his degree to good use at Genentech.
He played the wing position at Cal and helps answer some questions about that position. Many thanks to Jacques Wilson for being great at answering these questions. Many thanks to all the ruggers who have taken time to answer the questions in this series. GO BEARS!
1. What got you interested in playing rugby initially?
My junior varsity high school football coach played for the local San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Club. After my sophomore season he invited some of my teammates and I to join the club. I perceived rugby to be even more violent than football so out of fear I declined. Over the next year I wrestled with the idea that I had backed down from a challenge. When the offer was extended the following year, I accepted and joined the newly formed 19's and under division of SFGGRC.
2. What got you interested in playing rugby at Cal?
SFGGRC sponsored my participation at Jack Clark's Rugby Camp. I didn't think that I was Cal caliber, but my performance at the camp earned me the Most Improved Player award. Coach Clark sought me out to see if I had any interest in playing for Cal, and the rest is history.
3. What is the rugby recruitment process like?
In my case the recruitment process was somewhat casual. I was contacted by the Cal Rugby team manager, and we maintained contact until I gained admittance to U.C Berkeley, and later joined the team.
4. Did you play on the frosh-sophs team?
Cal doesn't have a frosh-soph team per se. But I did pay my dues on the reserve-grade B Team, or as we called ourselves the Killer B's.
5. What was the experience like playing on the frosh-sophs team?
The biggest challenge of playing on the B Team was being ready to play come match time. The B Team matches usually directly followed the A Team match. At a nod you had to be ready to go into the A Team match, yet you had to retain the focus needed to be on the boil for the B Team match. It was a both a challenge as well as a tremendous motivator to be on the reserve team. I was personally motivated by the thought of running out of the gates en fuego with the A Team as they took the field, compared to the drawly buildup to the B Team match.
6. Can you take us through the average rugby practice?
Practice would usually start with stretches. Each group of position players would claim a patch of grass. In the Deep Three (wings and fullbacks) we would usually have a question of the day like "Best movie villain of all-time?" Even though the answer is pretty obvious that it's Han Gruber from the original Die Hard, the other Deep Three members would also weigh in as we stretched. After stretches we'd do a dynamic warm-up. Team drills followed. Then Backs and Forwards would split and work on unit-specific skills. Lastly, the Backs and the Forwards would get together to work as a team.
7. What activities outside of official rugby practice did you partake in to stay in shape?
I would usually do additional running and weight training to supplement the mandated rugby activities.
8. Can you take us through the average home rugby game? What are your pre-game actives? What are your post-game activities?
Many players would first go to the training room for modalities, taping, and physio for injuries. For the pre-game we would meet as a team in the South End locker room in the football stadium. The first XV would go down onto the football field to warm up. Then we'd return back to the locker room, get a few last words from Coach Clark, then walk up to the field. Before taking the field we'd huddle outside the gates, "O Fortuna" from Caramina Burana playing in the background. As the song gained momentum the gates opened; we then put on our blinders and took the field.
After the match: win, lose, or draw, we would host our opponent for post-match meal. Part of the culture of rugby was to enjoy the company of your opponent after the match.
9. What do you love most about your experience on the team w/ Coach Clark?
I loved the shared-sacrifice and accountability that was our code as a rugby brotherhood. I knew that my teammates gutting themselves to uphold one of the highest performance standards that I have ever witnessed. Coach Clark taught us about life using rugby as a medium. I think that he pushed us so hard because it would hurt him to see us let ourselves down. His standards forced me to look in the mirror. Sometimes I found aspects of myself that I wasn't proud of. But in being honest I was able to confront and address them.
Coach Clark also instilled in us the respectful ethos of the sport. We honored the game by playing within its laws, but also within its intensely competitive spirit.
Off the playing field, an experience that sticks out was when I ran across Coach Clark walking to Haas Pavilion to meet with another coach. He's one of the figures in Cal Athletic history (and present) so I'm sure that nobody would have batted an eye if he showed up in a pair of shorts, wearing a whistle around his neck. But was dressed sharp, and carrying a leather-bound notebook. Putting your best foot forward was a motto that he lived and dressed by. That philosophy has paid off in spades in my life.
Coach Clark was not the only influential Cal Rugby coach. I learned a lot from Coach Billups too, who also practiced what he preached. Sometimes when I am in a situation I think to myself what would Coach Billups do, and I usually land on a pretty good response.
10. What was the toughest game during your career and why?
The toughest games were the ones that I didn't play in. It was an agonizing experience to not be on the field, every single time. Other than that I U.C. Davis was always a tough team because they would run straight at you relentlessly; I was a real-life lesson in inertia. You had to have to conviction to stop them. Even though I don't think we ever lost to them, I would always feel beat up after the game.
11. Any good stories on how you and your teammates would go about intimidating the opposition and dominate?
LOL! We didn't use any intimidation tactics that I'm aware of. We were successful when we executed on our plan. There was almost always a decision that you could make that would improve your situation on the field.
We relied on our plan and the confidence that we were comfortable with being physically uncomfortable, rather than worrying about affecting the other team's perception.
13. What is the funniest moment during your time as a rugger for Cal?
In general some of the funniest moments occurred on the team bus. Without getting into specifics, it was a bonding experience and some of the most fun I had playing rugby at Cal. I would take a bus trip up to Humbolt county, over a flight any day.
14. What was your favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?
Two moments stand out: Just to set the table, we lost the 2003 national championship by losing to Air Force in the semi-final. The first scrum during the 2004 collegiate national championship was one of the most exciting moments of my career. Our pack pushed the touted Cal Poly SLO forwards into the stands. That was a game-changer as all previous reports had us out-gunned. The second favorite moment was Dave Guest's flawless performance against BYU in our first meeting in many years. He became my hero that day as he ran, passed and kicked perfectly. The game was the highest of stakes. BYU was a great team, but they were unable to complete in the National Championships because of the Saturday/Sunday format. We defended our dynasty that day as there were always questions about if Cal could beat BYU given their parallel success levels in over the years.
15. What was your least favorite moment as a rugger for Cal?
Learning that one of teammates had been seriously injured in a car accident.
17. How has the experience of playing rugby transformed your career after graduating from Cal?
The professionalism and high standards of play at Cal have contributed to my success as a business leader. I internalize the importance of clearly communicating and enforcing your standards, being exemplarily, working insatiably without a sense of entitlement, and being a gentleman.
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?
The budget cut situation was a difficult one for the entire Cal family. I believe that the administration to their credit reached the right decision by preserving rugby's varsity status. I am confidant that going forward we will lock arms with the administration to accomplish our mutual goal of establishing the eminence of the University of California.
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?
The recent revelations about football head injuries have been disconcerting. Hopefully there will be some roll-over to rugby as the research in this area matures. I don't think that concussions in rugby are as big of a concern. Since you don't have a helmet you don't tend to use your head as a weapon. Nevertheless concussions do occur. I don't know all that is being done so far to support athletes with brain injuries, but I hope that efforts are being made.
20. What is your view on Rugby Sevens? Legit form of rugby or bastardization of the game?
Sevens, although perhaps a less well-known flavor of the game is fully legitimate version. It might not last as long but it is a tremendous fitness, skill, and mental challenge, much like 15's.
21. Do you still keep in touch with your teammates?
I still do keep in contact with many of my former teammates. Such is life that many of them are now strewn throughout the country and our lives have diverged. But when I do run into them it is very special because of the time that we have spent during the formative years of our lives. I would say that we are more brothers than friends because the relationship doesn't need to be constantly maintained to preserve our bond. I recently made a trip to New York and didn't hesitate to contact my former teammate Kevin Ambrosini after not speaking to him for five plus years. But the reunion was great and we picked up where we left off years ago because there is a strong Cal Rugby foundation to our relationship.
22. Do you still follow Cal Rugby?
I still check in on them online. They continue to live up to our high standards and I am very proud of them.
Position Questions: Wing
1. What is your role in the open field?
Defensively: Wings are responsible for covering the sidelines, kicks, and line breaks to the opposite side. To cover the sidelines you maintained a relationship with the attackers that filtered them inside, towards the pursuit of your teammates. To cover kicks you listened to the Fullback to rotate in behind the last line of defense to blanket the deep field. If there was a kick it was your job to catch it in the air and mount a counter attack. A counter attack could mean kicking the ball right back to where the defense had vacated, and was vulnerable. It could also mean running the ball forward through a gap in the wave of defenders who were undoubtedly looking to tackle you before your team had a chance to get back behind you and form a proper offensive attack. Wings would also cover a line break on the opposite side of the field by sprinting over there whenever one occurred.
Offensively: Wings were finishers. Typically there has been a lot of work done by the forwards and interiors backs before you receive the ball on the outside. Your job quite frankly was to honor the work by received the ball at pace, and scoring. If you couldn't score then get a big chunk of meterage that would leave the defense reeling and unprepared for a quickly played next phase. Ball security was of the utmost importance during breaks, because if a turnover occurred on the outside, the opposition could easily pick the ball up and run it back. Wings did not only play on the outside. As dictated by the game plan and defensive alignment they would insert themselves into the line at pace to knife through the defense.
2. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals in the open field?
Defensively: To cover the field Wings relied on instructions from the Fullback to align themselves. I personally covered the sidelines by playing the outside shoulder of the defender. If a line break occurred inside of me I knew I had help. I would also ask for help on the outside by telling my teammates to shift over when the offence had us out-numbered.
Offensively: In attack the basic idea was to be running as fast as you could and make the defender make a decision. You would try to adjust quickly enough so that whatever decision the defender came to was the wrong decision. For example, if was running toward the defense at full speed and the defender decided that he was going to play me as well as another of my attacking teammates. I would try to pin my ears back and run right past him, through the arm tackle.
3. How do you determine how you should kick the ball?
I can't remember kicking the ball, ever. I figured that if I was motivated I could make a positive play (with a better chance of retaining possession) if I ran at the defense and put pack a clean ball.
4. It does not appear that you are directly involved in a scrum. What is your role in a scrum?
During scrums Wings as well as the other backs aligned themselves defensively to mark the opposition, or offensively to mount a first strike. The forwards are doing the work in the scrum, which gives the backs a chance to recover. I have tremendous respect for Forwards because they are always working, no matter the phase of play.
5. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals while the scrum is occurring?
The most important tool that the Back used to align themselves during the scrum was communicating with the person next to you. In doing so we knitted ourselves together. Communication had a very strict definition for Cal Rugby. It meant giving it and getting it back. If I were to pass the play onto the back next to me, I would expect some sort of acknowledgment from him that he understood.
6. Do you have any special practices that you do to help you as a wing?
Some of the most useful Wing-specific practices involved working in an open space. We would practice chasing down kicks by organizing ourselves in a defensive wave to be in position to make an open-field tackle. We would also practice receiving kicks by getting into position to catch the ball on the fly, then forming an attack to put the ball where the defense was vulnerable, either by kicking it right back or shipping it to an undefended part of the field.
8. What originally got you interested in being a wing?
9. Are there any other positions you like to play besides wing?
Not really. My absolute favorite thing to do as a Wing was chasing kicks. Often times when we were kicked off to, after running the ball forward a bit a breakdown would occur on the short side of the field. The Scrum Half would do a high and deep box kick over the top. I would try to time it out so that I would be passing the Scrum Half right as he was kicking, so that I wasn't offside. The feeling of running down the sideline at a pace that only the top tenth percentile of the world was capable was the exhilarating, like drinking five Mountain Dews in a row. Ideally I would be downfield before the other team had a chance to gather themselves.
10. Is there anything about your body that makes you a natural fit for a wing?
There isn't anything about my body that doesn't make me a natural fit to be a Wing.
11. It does not appear that you are directly involved in lineouts. What is your role during a line out?
The role of the Wing during a lineout is similar to that during a scrum. Whether it was defensive or offensive Wings would align themselves for the phase of play after the lineout. If the lineout was on your side, you would play back for the kick. If the lineout was on the other side of the field you would usually be up in the defensive backline. The alignment during an offensive lineout was similar. If it was to your side you align yourself in the inside pocket of the Flyhalf. If it was to the opposite side you'd be playing in the line to the outside of the Outside Center.
12. What tactics do you use to accomplish your goals while a line out is occurring?
Communication and alignment was key here, just as it was during scrums.
1. What positions did you play for Cal football?
2. When did you play for Cal football?
I played football and rugby my first couple of years. During my third football season I ended up having surgery on both of my knees. I didn't think that my body would be able to make it if I continued to play both. It was one of the most difficult decisions of my college career to stop playing football.
3. What did you learn with Cal Rugby that helped you at Cal football?
Most everything that I learned playing rugby helped me in football. One lesson in particular resonated. In rugby physical stamina was the cornerstone of any success. I got comfortable with being physically uncomfortable. Our saying went something like you don't get less tired as your fitness level increases. You are just able to do more. I tried to leverage this philosophy in football by never allowing myself downtime, much like the game of rugby is played.
4. What did you learn with Cal football that helped you with Cal rugby?
Since I spent a lot of time on the scout team, I got to go against NFL-bound defenders like Deltha O'Neil and indirectly Andre Carter. Being around elite athletes like that raised my level of play.
5. How difficult was it to balance football and rugby at Cal?
I'm not sure. When I played football and rugby at the same time I was also working at night to cover what my scholarship didn't. Yet I still had the top 1 or 2 GPAs on the football team. After I had a little more time my performance in the classroom worsened. It could have been that I was burned out. But I tend to believe that when I have more to do, that I am more successful.
There were literally days that I went to football spring practice before the sun came up, then later that day went to rugby training. Every morning that I woke up to these "double days" of sort I stood in my living room half awake wondering if I could do it, get through the day. Everyday that I did make it was personally fortifying.
6. How were the rugby practices different from the football practices?
Rugby practices were shorter and physically intense. I recall a practice tens of my teammates vomitted. Some of the drills in the pig pen as we called it were so exhausting that when you went in for the next round you were still dizzy from the previous one.
Football practice was mental marathon. It is a full time job. On regular days you would easily spend 8 hours doing football related activities including practice, film, weight training, training room. It was a tremendous mental challenge to continue to improve with each session, instead of going through the motions.
7. How do the football players view the rugby players at Cal?
I know that the football players view the rugby team with a great degree of respect. Football and rugby have a unique relationship. We share the same weight room, ice baths, training tables and corridors. We both play a key part in carrying the banner for the great University of California.
8. What was your favorite moment on the Cal football team?
I played football during at a time that we didn't win a lot. Since I've never seen a sports almanac that listed moral victories I would have to say that losing was, and still is the pits. Even so I loved my football experience. Most of all I liked being on the field watching great athletes like Deltha O'neil and Joe Igber be great.
10. Do you still keep in touch with any of your football teammates?
Much like my rugby teammates there are still a few football teammates that I keep in contact with. It is always nice to see where life is taking them.