Grassroots Rugby - It’s Tough Down There
(by Brain Lowe, ESports, 4/4/99)
Remember the days when playing rugby for your local club meant turning up for a game at some non-descript field somewhere, when the players vastly outnumbered the spectators and when the club barely survived from season to season.
You played the game because you enjoyed it, you gladly parted with your hard-earned bucks to pay for your kit and you took part in the many and varied fund-raising activities to help boost the club’s coffers, which were always modest at the best of times.
Ah, those may not have been ideal times, but that was the way rugby clubs were. Of course things aren’t like that anymore, right? Well, you may be surprised to learn that things are just like that today for most Second Division rugby clubs all over America, and you’d better believe they do it tough baby!
One such club is the Escondido-San Marcos Ghurkas of the Southern California Rugby Football Union. It’s now into its 25th year, but the fact that it’s still going is remarkable. The club’s support base is pretty spartan, it can’t afford a permanent home and it has precious little to offer potential sponsors, and of course in this day and age sponsorship is everything isn’t it.
The club had its origins with the Escondido Athletic Club in 1974, but a few short years later that association was terminated by members who were unimpressed that a bunch of muddied ruggers turned up to use the club’s showers after a particularly sloppy game. Since then the Ghurkas have been the wandering minstrels of San Diego’s North County and they still don’t have a clubhouse to call their own. The closest thing they have to one is a local pub where everyone gets together after the game to knock back some well-deserved amber fluid.
To add to their troubles, earlier this season they were kicked off a field they’d been using for the past two years at a local high school when the school decided that it no longer wanted to be associated with them. Fortunately though, the club managed to find another more understanding high school that allows it to play on one of its training fields. Mind you before each match the players put up the goal posts and do the line marking themselves, and then remove the posts at game’s end.
Oh, and during the game if the ball is kicked too far into touch, it often sails over the fence and into the roadway where it beckons retrieval by one of the few reserves standing on the sparsely populated sideline.
Now, the reason clubs such as this are in Second Division is because they can’t field a second and third team, otherwise they’d more than likely be playing in First Division. They’re scheduled to play two fixtures every week, but if they don’t have enough players to make up a second team the choice is play back-to-back matches on game day, or else forfeit the second game. So what happens is that most of the players have to front up for a second go round while still catching their breath from the first outing.
The funny thing is that these guys turn up week after week anyway, and you know why? It’s because they like it. Sure there are hardships, but they enjoy playing rugby at this level, they enjoy the camaraderie and most of them wouldn’t trade any of it for the chance to play in a competition of a higher standard. Granted, there are bigger and better connected clubs around that duke it out every week in the Super League, but that’s way too serious for these fellows.
Don’t be mistaken though, they still turn up for practice twice a week, but they’re drawn to clubs like Escondido because of the more relaxed social side of things. And why shouldn’t they be, after all isn’t that what Rahs Rahs are renowned for?
These clubs tend not to take themselves too seriously, enabling the players to derive some pleasure from lacing up their boots. They’re not zealots, so consequently they don’t have a ‘win at all costs’ attitude to the sport and that seems to be what helps them stay afloat.
Despite the ongoing struggle and its unenviable hand to mouth existence, Escondido-San Marcos sees itself as an essential ingredient in the mix of American rugby. It now has a high school team under its wing and it continues to enjoy a fair amount of success from recruiting players in gyms and bars.
Coach Ray Steel who also used to simultaneously wear the caps of president, treasurer and secretary, says you can’t get much more grassroots than this club. Steel also doubles as the club’s patron these days and he sees its future remaining pretty much unchanged until such time as the high school team kicks into full gear and the club establishes a feeder program with one of San Diego’s colleges.
The plan is not just for the club, but for rugby in the North County. If we can get some high schools playing, it’s got to be good for us because we’re in the North County. We can’t do it just from guys out of bars. They fill up your numbers, but they don’t make you a great team.
They’re 25 when they start playing and you’re not going to make First Division doing that. They have to start when they’re 16 or 17 or younger.
According to Steel, the hardest thing is trying to sell high schools on the idea of a rugby team because the response is generally one of -- oh no our kids will be hurt, where’s your insurance where’s this and where’s that?
He believes rugby would kick on in a place like San Diego if it was played at a venue somewhere such as the city’s Sports Arena, a place where it would enjoy higher visibility. He maintains that for a club like his to sustain itself rugby needs to be given more promotion. It needs to be marketed as a professional game and be put on mainstream TV, while at the same time being fostered at the grassroots level.
It’s a tough task in this country of pro sports and nothing else, but as long as there are clubs like Escondido-San Marcos around the traps the code has a chance of making it.