Legend has it that the sport of rugby was born in England when a frustrated soccer player picked up the ball and ran with it. American colleges took up rugby and then modified it into a game of discrete plays and introduced forward passing, thus creating football, the nation’s most popular sport, a spectacle of violence and dazzle, epitomized by Super Bowl XLVII last Sunday.
Despite its popularity and commercial power, the National Football League is facing a serious crisis, as incidents of chronic brain injuries among former players continue to mount. Some pundits are predicting the demise of the sport in coming decades. Professional soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is also having its troubles, as a massive game-fixing scandal has recently been alleged.
In contrast to those trillion-dollar enterprises, there was a rugby match at Elings Park last Saturday. The Santa Barbara Grunion played host to the Gurkhas of San Diego County. The players seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly as they tussled for 80 minutes in front of a few dozen family members and friends. They sustained bumps and bruises but no serious injuries.
“We don’t have helmets to use as a battering ram,” said Doug Lynch, president of the Grunion. “In rugby, you’d break your neck.” Rugby rules require tacklers to lead with open arms and tackle below the waist.
“You cannot hit a man in the air,” spectator Bob Riggs said. “That’s been in the rules forever.” Riggs was an original member of the Grunion, founded in 1978 by UCSB ruggers who wanted to keep playing after college. “I played rugby for 22 years, and I never had a concussion,” Riggs said.
“I love it,” said David Arnet, in his second year of rugby. “It’s an awesome game. Soccer is a beautiful game of finesse. This is a release of aggression. Because the clock is continuously running, it’s faster paced than football.”
“I’ve played soccer since I was 4, and I got tired of guys falling to the ground pretending they were hit,” Mitch Perley said. “Rugby is tough and physical, but it requires teamwork and thinking. You have to play smart.”
The flow of the game lessens the chance of high-impact collisions. The object is not to take out one’s opponent; it’s to gain possession of the ball, which must be released by a player who falls to the ground. “You protect yourself when you go down and try to keep the ball in your team’s possession,” said Tim Ahern, a former Grunion player who helps coach the team.
The Grunion has to recruit new players every year. “Santa Barbara is such a transient town,” Lynch said. “We’re rebuilding this season.” The club supports a youth rugby program that may produce future stars. It has an agreement with a New Zealand rugby academy that brought two Kiwis to Santa Barbara this year.
The Grunion’s 35th-anniversary season continues with three more Saturday matches at Elings Park: on February 23 against Pasadena, March 16 against Huntington Beach, and March 23 against San Fernando Valley.
And if that’s not enough rugby, then check out the UCSB men’s rugby team when they host San Diego State at Harder Stadium on Saturday, February 16, at 1 p.m.
LEGEND AND TRAGEDY: Lucius Davis’s performance in his last regular-season appearance at home in 1992 made him an instant legend among UCSB basketball fans. Capping a sterling four-year career with the Gauchos — during which he pursued a major in engineering — Davis took the court before the game and gave a stirring rendition of the national anthem. Then he scored 29 points in a victory over New Mexico State. He averaged 22.2 points a game and was Big West Player of the Year. Davis will return to the Thunderdome on Saturday night, February 9, when UCSB plays Pacific. He will be honored as the fifth men’s basketball “Legend of the ‘Dome.” … The Big West women’s basketball community was shaken by the news that Cal State Fullerton assistant coach Monica Quan was found shot to death along with her fiancé last Sunday night in Irvine. The day before, Quan was on the Fullerton bench at the Thunderdome during UCSB’s 60-50 victory over the Titans.
SOCCER STARS IN TOWN: A Major League Soccer preseason match between the Chicago Fire and San Jose Earthquakes will be played at UCSB’s Harder Stadium at 6 p.m. on Saturday, February 9. Sam Garza, a former Gaucho, is a second-year player with San Jose. At 4 p.m., there will be a match between UCSB and the Chicago reserves.