Rugby is gaining wide exposure with the film Invictus, the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa, where the spectacular success of the hometown Springboks helped bring together whites and blacks in the dicey first year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency.
Previously, the most-watched rugby action sequence in the United States was not credited to the sport itself. It occurred in a college football game-the 1982 Big Game between Cal and Stanford, when the Golden Bears returned a kickoff the length of the field by executing a series of backward passes that culminated in the toppling of a Stanford trombone player in the end zone.
“Everybody in the game of rugby gets to run with the ball and make decisions about what happens,” said Kevin Battle, director of the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy and UCSB’s rugby program. “The coaches sit in the stands, and the captains run the game on the field. There are no timeouts. It has the physicality of football and the fluidity, or whatever you want to call it-the music, the poetry-of basketball or soccer.”
Battle started up the Rugby Academy this year. He has recruited 30 young men who played rugby in high school to attend SBCC. While taking rugby lessons from Battle’s coaching staff, they are expected to excel in the classroom and eventually transfer to a four-year school like UCSB. The first quarter has gone well, he said.
The academy will have a winter training camp starting Sunday (Dec. 27) in conjunction with four visiting sides-the U.S. national U-18 and U-20 squads; the Canadian national U-18s; and the New Zealand University U-20 All-Stars. They will be housed in Isla Vista residence halls and will work out at UCSB fields. There will be practice games between the American and international sides at Harder Stadium on Friday, January 1 (at 1 and 3pm), and Sunday, January 3 (at 11am and 1pm).
Battle, a former college dropout from Illinois, has seen the world because of rugby. He discovered the sport on a visit to Santa Barbara, enrolled at Westmont College, and played for the Warriors’ rugby club. He graduated in 2000 and ran with the Santa Barbara Grunion, a community rugby team founded in 1978. This past year, Battle was manager of the U.S.A. team that played in the International Sevens-the version of rugby that will be played in the 2016 Olympics-with matches in Dubai, South Africa, and New Zealand.
Rugby has been played locally for more than 50 years. UCSB once hosted the world’s largest rugby tournament, drawing as many as 100 club, college, and international teams. It had a reputation as a wild affair, but longtime director Mel Gregory said his research showed there were fewer crime reports than usual in the area on rugby weekend. Bonhomie among ruggers, with the raising of beer mugs and singing of songs, is a vital element of the sport’s culture, but Battle said the emphasis now is on serious training. “It’s a professional sport,” he said.
In spring 2010 (Apr. 16-18), UCSB will host the U.S.A. Rugby Collegiate Western Regionals. Eight men’s and eight women’s teams will compete for berths in the national finals.
MILESTONE: Westmont’s basketball coach John Moore achieved the 400th victory of his career (his 321st with the Warriors) last Friday, a 78-61 win over the Keelhaulers of Cal State Maritime. On Monday, the Warriors won their third straight road game, 107-54 over Menlo College. Westmont (7-2), ranked No. 22 on the NAIA national poll, will be home for the holidays, hosting the 34th annual Tom Byron Classic on Tuesday and Wednesday, December 29 and 30. The Warriors will face Concordia (Nebraska) at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday. Central (Iowa) will take on Westminster (Pennsylvania) at 5:30.
STONE COLD: Dear Santa Claus: Please give every UCSB player a basketball stamped with the warning, “Handle with Care.” Four straight, ragged defeats have dropped the Gaucho men to 4-4, and the women are 3-7 after fumbling their last two at home. Both teams will try to get their sputtering offenses going on the road next week before they open Big West Conference play on January 2.
BEST OF THE DECADE (COLLEGE AND OPEN): Team: UCSB men’s soccer, the 2006 national champions. Male athlete: Olympic beach volleyball champion Todd Rogers, whose finely honed skills and strategic knowledge are a perfect complement to partner Phil Dalhausser’s power. Female athlete: Kristen Mann, a complete basketball player for the Gaucho women, who reached the NCAA Sweet Sixteen in 2004. Games: On consecutive nights during March Madness in 2002, the Gaucho men lost a rip-roaring first-round NCAA game to Arizona at Albuquerque, and UCSB’s women stunned Louisiana Tech on Jess Hansen’s last-second jumper at Austin, Texas.