As Penn State and California players ran into PPL Park on Saturday afternoon, sprinting under rugby goalposts whose tops were visible to Delaware River boaters, they were buoyed by a roaring crowd, a screaming public-address announcer, and the knowledge that for the next 20 minutes network TV cameras would be pointed at them.
For the Nittany Lions, their third match on Saturday's opening day of the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships was a rare respite from the sport's American obscurity. For Cal, the fervor generated by the game that kicked off NBC's portion of daylong TV coverage was as familiar as protests on its Berkeley campus.
That's because Cal, almost alone among college rugby programs, plays before large and energetic gatherings all the time at Witter Field, the recently renovated stadium that sits as close to San Francisco Bay as PPL does to the Delaware.
"We've played in front of some pretty big crowds," coach Jack Clark said after his Golden Bears routed the Nittany Lions, 26-7.
The Golden Bears rule the waves in collegiate rugby, a sport not sanctioned by the NCAA or blessed with TV riches or widespread popularity.
In the traditional 15-player version of the sport, Cal has won 26 national titles since 1980. In recent decades, it has put together winning streaks of 98 and 70 games. And though they lost to Utah in the final of last year's inaugural college rugby sevens tourney, the Golden Bears arrived in Philadelphia as big favorites to win this one.
They did little to alter those expectations on the busy, pleasant Saturday in Chester. In addition to their lopsided victory over Penn State, they dismantled Ohio State (38-0) and Louisiana State (24-0) to advance to Sunday's quarterfinals.
Penn State, which eked out two-point wins over Ohio State and LSU, also moved on, as did Arizona, Army, Dartmouth, Utah, Texas, and Central Washington.
Temple lost all three of its games and will compete in Sunday's consolation round. The two-day, 16-team men's event in Chester will conclude Sunday with the 5:20 p.m. men's championship.
"Pretty uneven, actually," Cal's Clark said when asked to describe his team's play. "We played reasonably well at times in all the games, but pretty uneven overall."
Since they had outscored three opponents, 88-7, it was clear that the standards are different for Clark and Cal.
At Berkeley, rugby is as established as political dissent. The first rugby game took place there in 1882, just 10 years after British expatriates brought the English sport to San Francisco.
"I'm in the right program. I'm coaching the right team," Clark said. "There's been rugby since 1882 at Cal. It's the oldest sport on campus. We like to say that we don't take ourselves very seriously, but we do take rugby very seriously."
At 6-foot-5, 265 pounds, the mustachioed Clark looks like a cross between Mike Ditka and the Marlboro Man. He was an all-Pac-8 offensive tackle at Cal and a former member of the USA national rugby team. He has coached the Bears for 28 years, compiling a John Wooden-like record of 511-68-5.
"He's been doing this so long," said Cal's Blaine Scully, who scored a pair of trys in the win over Penn State, "How could anyone argue with a track record like his?"
Clark, on the other hand, had a simple explanation for his success. "I coach good players," he said.
Those players gathered around him before taking the field against Penn State in what was the 17th of the day's 24 matches. A game of sevens - a shorter, swifter version of rugby - can be completed in 20 minutes.
Just 1 minute, 4 seconds in, Cal's Dustin Muhn scored. Eighty seconds later Scully did the same and, when the conversion after the second try failed, the Golden Bears had a quick and painless 12-0 advantage.
With 54 seconds left in the opening seven-minute half, Penn State's Joe Baker scored a try, the only points Cal would allow on Saturday.
The Golden Bears, relentlessly pushing ahead with their powerful, striped-shirt wing of attackers, put the game away in the second half on scores by Scully again and, finally, with 3:20 to play, Connor Ring.
The competition for Cal figures to intensify Sunday.
"You've got to play three games, and all three games will be higher-caliber opponents than what we saw in our pool," Clark said. "We'll most likely win by a little or lose by a little in all the games."
While the relatively large crowd, the picturesque setting, and the nonstop tourney might not have phased Cal, it all added to the momentum American rugby is experiencing.
"This is a great venue here," Clark said of PPL Park. "It's a fantastic stadium and I'm really pleased with the turnout."
PPL Park officials did not offer an exact attendance number, but said it was a little over 10,000.
Not only is the sport growing in the U.S. - collegiately and at the high school and club levels - but in 2016 it will return to the Olympics after an absence of more than eight decades.
"Getting in the Olympics was fantastic," said Clark. "It was the single biggest thing that's ever happened to America rugby. It'll probably bring with it a lot of credibility for our sport and that's one of the things we've been searching for in American rugby. It's a form of validation, of credibility."
Not surprisingly, when the U.S. won gold medals in rugby fifteens at the 1920 and 1924 Games, both teams were loaded with Cal products.
"We're excited," Clark said, "to be back in the business of developing Olympic rugby players."
Here are Saturday's results and Sunday's schedule for the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships at PPL Park in Chester:
Penn State 14, LSU 12
California 38, Ohio State 0
Notre Dame 31, Boston College 0
Dartmouth 17, Utah 12
North Carolina 38, Navy 7
Army 14, Central Washington , 12
Arizona 28, Temple 0
Texas 24, Oklahoma 12
Penn State 12, Ohio State 10
Dartmouth 24, Notre Dame 19
Central Washington 14, Navy 7
California 24, LSU 0
Utah 17, Boston College 5
Army 28, North Carolina 5
Texas 19. Temple 0
Arizona 38, Oklahoma 0
California 26, Penn State 7
Utah 21, Notre Dame 17
Army 19, Navy 15
Arizona 19, Texas 0
LSU 10, Ohio State 7
Dartmouth 36. Boston College 0
Central Washington 21, North Carolina 10
Oklahoma 22, Temple 5
Women's quarterfinal, 8:59 a.m.
Women's quarterfinal, 9:19
Women's quarterfinal, 9:39
Women's quarterfinal, 9:59
Men's championship quarterfinal, 10:19
California vs. Utah
Men's championship quarterfinal, 10:41
Penn State vs. Dartmouth
Men's championship quarterfinal, 11:03
Army vs. Texas
Men's championship quarterfinal, 11:25
Arizona vs. Central Washington
Men's challenger quarterfinal, 11:47
LSU vs. Boston College
Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:09 p.m.
Oklahoma State vs. Notre Dame
Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:31
North Carolina vs. Temple
Men's challenger quarterfinal, 12:53
Navy vs. Oklahoma
Women's semifinal, 1:15
Women's semifinal, 1:35
Men's championship semifinal, 2:05
Men's championship semifinal, 2:30
Men's challenger semifinal, 2:55
Men's challenger semifinal, 3:20
Women's final, 4
Men's bronze medal, 4:40
Men's challenger final, 5
Men's championship final, 5:20EndText