Rugby players do not actually eat their dead, although the bumper sticker says so, but they do become bonded in flesh, blood, and spirit during their lifetimes. The camaraderie can be stronger than national affiliations.
“You’re a rugby player first, wherever you go,” said Kevin Battle, director of the Santa Barbara Rugby Academy (SBRA). “That’s the identity that matters. Travel anywhere in the world, look up the local rugby club, and you’ll find people who will be happy to buy you a beer and probably give you a place to stay.”
The SBRA is the nation’s first full-time rugby training program. Started in 2009, it enrolls recruits at S.B. City College and has had 41 players transfer to four-year schools. One of its graduates, Alec Gletzer, plays on the national team. In January, the SBRA will start up a women’s program. It will be led by Kelly Griffin, the captain of the U.S. women’s sevens at the Rio Olympics.
Griffin played basketball and soccer in high school. She went to UCLA and scanned a list of club sports. In rugby, the feisty 5′4″ 150-pounder found a sport where she could release her aggressions. “In basketball, I often got into foul trouble,” she said. “Rugby — you can just hit them. Not a foul.”
There’s a women’s league of American football, but Griffin said, “Rugby is way more fun. It’s so much more fluid; everybody gets to play offense and defense; everybody gets hands on the ball. It’s the most fun sport I’ve ever played.” And it took her to the Olympics, where the brisk, high-scoring sevens game was well received. The U.S. women finished fifth after playing Australia’s gold-medal team to a draw.
Crystal Ho’s passion for rugby led her to revive Santa Barbara’s women’s side, the Mermaids, two years ago. “It’s kind of my baby,” said Ho, a county medical lab technician who discovered rugby at UC San Diego. “It’s blossomed into this lovely family. The diversity of people brought together through rugby is one of its most notable distinctions. We have active players in their sixties who still lead and tackle 20-year-olds.”
Another “beautiful thing about rugby,” she said, is the socials: “mandatory eating-drinking-bonding time with all visiting teams in which international rugby songs are sung and belched.”
There is no age restriction to that kind of enjoyment, according to Darin Siegel, president of S.B. Youth Rugby, which puts teams called the Stingrays on the pitch. “It’s a family atmosphere,” he said. “You’ll play a hard game, and afterward you’ll be having a soda, having a sandwich, and celebrating the win and the loss with the other team.”
Some high school athletes give rugby a shot, although it is not a scholastic sport in this section of the CIF. “I love it,” said Ewan Best, a San Marcos High wrestler who plays for the Stingrays U16 team. “It’s a really respectful sport. There’s no, like, arrogancy, if that’s a word.”
The classic game of rugby takes 15 players on a side. “Every size person can play,” Siegel said. “There’s no prototype. You don’t have to be extremely speedy. Because it’s a team game, everybody fits in somewhere.” Every player has to make tackles, and the youngsters are taught a technique that takes dangerous spearing out of play.
The Stingrays go easy on requirements. “We’re not the club program that penalizes you for not always being here,” Siegel said. “We accept that everybody has outside lives, and you put in the time that you can.”
Home matches take place at the upper field of Elings Park, a rugby paradise for much of the year. There are two special events this month:
• Saturday, December 10: All Santa Barbara boys and girls, ages 10-18, interested in giving rugby a try are invited to a free clinic, 10 a.m.-noon. The Stingrays U12 and U14 teams will play San Diego in the afternoon. The Mermaids will have matches with the San Fernando Valley and Fullerton Women’s rugby football clubs (RFCs).
• Saturday, December 17: The SBRA will conduct a Talent ID Camp for men and women, 9 a.m.-3 p.m., with Battle, Griffin, and Olympic women’s coach Richie Walker. It will be followed by a match between the Mermaids and Ventura.
Starting January 14 and continuing into May, there will be games at Elings every Saturday. Besides the academy teams and the Mermaids, the long-established adult men’s teams — the Grunion RFC and the senior Fossils — will be in action. All the clubs, including the Stringrays, belong to the nonprofit S.B. Rugby Association. UCSB and Westmont College also sponsor rugby clubs.
GAME OF THE WEEK
12/14: College Women’s Basketball: UCLA at UCSB This matchup furnishes visions of UCSB’s glorious past and hopeful future. UCLA coach Cori Close returns to her alma mater; she led the Gauchos into the NCAA tournament as a player and helped them reach the Sweet 16 in 2004 as Mark French’s top assistant. Now in her sixth year as head coach, Close took UCLA to the Sweet 16 last season, and the Bruins are currently ranked No. 9 in the nation. UCSB’s fortunes took a deep plunge for several years, but now Bonnie Henrickson, who visited the Sweet 16 twice as head coach at Kansas, is trying to lead the Gaucho women back to respectability. Close and Henrickson will jointly present a chalk talk at UCSB’s Corwin Pavilion on Tuesday evening before their teams take the floor Wednesday. 7pm. The Thunderdome, UCSB. $5-$12. Call 893-UCSB (8272) or visit ucsbgauchos.com.
S.B. ATHLETIC ROUND TABLE ATHLETES OF THE WEEK
Camila Casanueva, Dos Pueblos basketball
The senior guard led the Charger girls to a tournament title in Atascadero, scoring 23 points in their first victory and dishing out 13 assists in the championship game.
Ryan Fidel, Dos Pueblos wrestling
The reigning Channel League champion at 126 pounds won all five of his matches, four by pins, at the Corona del Mar Duals. The Chargers made it to the team finals.