Canadian forward Josh Mao combines high-level rugby with top academics at Cal
Part of Cal's storied college rugby program, Canadian Josh Mao is also looking to make a mark off the pitch.
The junior front-row forward from Victoria, who is majoring in molecular cell biology, is helping conduct research in the field of immunology. Mao, 20, is currently working on how immune cells detect proteins that different bacterial pathogens secrete in order to weaken the host's immune system.
Combined with rugby practice, It makes for a busy week.
"I think everyone on the team keeps a pretty tightly packed Google calendar," Mao said. "It's definitely a juggling act sometimes with school and academics and everything else. But I really enjoy the process of it all. Being able to do both, we're all very grateful for."
His plan is to pursue a PhD and work in biotech or research.
Rugby will likely eventually take a back seat in the real world. But for now, Mao is on fertile collegiate rugby ground.
The program at University of California, Berkeley, is led by U.S. Rugby Hall of Famer Jack Clark, who celebrated his 40th year as head coach in 2022-23. Under Clark, Cal has won 24 national 15s and five sevens titles. Cal has also produced 58 U.S. internationals who have made more than 790 combined appearances for the Eagles on the world stage.
"We have a lot of respect and admiration for the guys that came before us," said Mao. "I think we want to uphold their standards and their legacy every day at practice, every day on the field. We're really custodians of that."
Clark, who starred in both football at rugby while attending Cal, coached the U.S. men's team from 1983 to 1989 and later served as the team's GM.
"He's a great motivator and tactician," Mao said. "Practice is intense for sure."
Cal product Seth Purdey, a centre/fullback from Mills Bay, B.C., who attended Shawnigan Lake School, went fourth overall to Rugby ATL in the 2022 Major League Rugby draft.
Cal ticked Mao's boxes when it came to choosing a college
"I was looking for schools in the States and academics was definitely a priority for me," he said. "Rugby was a very close second, because I didn't want to give up the game."
He reached out to the Cal coaches and attended Cal's rugby summer camp in the summer of 2019. Now he faces the likes of Army, Navy, Saint Mary's and Brigham Young.
Mao went to St. Michaels University School in Victoria, as did Cal teammate Toby Wu, a six-foot-three 225-pound sophomore backrower from Vancouver.
Mao started playing rugby in Grade 5 at St. Michaels.
"I got into club rugby around the eighth grade and that's when I started to fall in love with the game," he said.
Mao developed under Ian Hyde-Lay, a rugby icon, at St Michaels.
The Cal team plays sevens mainly in the fall with the 15s season running January through April. As a prop/hooker, Mao sticks to the 15s game.
"We've got plenty of fast fit guys that are a little bit more skilled and a little bit lighter on their feet," the six-foot 245-pound Mao said with a chuckle.
The Cal roster features players from Australia, England, Hong Kong, the Philippines, South Africa, Switzerland and the U.S.
"A lot of really skilled guys coming in, even locally," said Mao. "It's just cool to learn from them. From their background, especially. Learn from the way they play and train. It's cool to see everyone come together as well."
While Mao and Wu have both seen action with the first team, they have been playing most recently on Cal's developmental side. Mao says he is still fighting for first-team minutes.
Mao missed a chunk of the 2021-2022 season after dislocating his left knee cap in a match last spring. He sat out about seven months.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press