When the Chargers followed that red ribbon of brakelights leading to Los Angeles, our city’s abandoned football fans responded by burning jerseys and searching for clever ways to repurpose their bolt tattoos. After an ugly split, we straightened our backs, dusted ourselves off, and moved on. We said so long to the NFL’s culture of concussions, domestic abuse, and public subsidies, and hello to a future supporting other professional team sports.
Other professional team sports have responded in typical San Diego fashion. This year’s Gulls minor league hockey team missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins after a late season slump. The Padres parlayed a “rebuilding” 2017 season into a 2018 that, so far, has been a race to last place. As of May 15 they were already nine games out of first place.
No sooner had the Chargers announced their decision to leave, than a SoccerCity ownership group emerged to commence an extended flirtation with bringing a Major League Soccer team to San Diego.
Unfortunately, the years of foreplay required to lure an MLS expansion franchise have started to feel distastefully similar to the public relations mess winding up to the Chargers’ departure: demands for a new stadium, a fractious public vote, and that unsavory cocktail of politicians making deals with developers.
Perhaps would-be San Diego soccer fans were experiencing a sort of pro sports franchise fatigue last year when, responding to a promotional poll set up by SoccerCity, they voted to give this hypothetical soccer team the most absurd nickname available: Footy McFooty Face.
As the largest U.S. city that has never won a professional team championship, San Diego fanatics have learned to make self-deprecation a point of pride.
So it came as refreshing surprise when, seemingly out of nowhere, Major League Rugby appeared in February to announce that San Diego will be one of seven American cities to field a professional rugby team in 2018. And that — by the way — there’s Major League Rugby now. Its first season is underway, it will be televised nationally, and its inaugural championship game will be hosted right here in San Diego this July.
Just like that, without any great teasing, debate, land grabs, or public funding, our city is the proud home of a new team: San Diego Legion. Fifteen men in red and black, playing without pads, without helmets, and without the seven-figure paychecks. Just like that, contact sports fans around the city have been given a chance to perk up, high five, and ask the suddenly relevant question: do we like rugby now?
The short answer is: yes. We’ve liked rugby for 60 years.
Most of rugby’s history in San Diego involves club teams — night and weekend athletes playing in organized competitions against other regional clubs of the Southern California Rugby Football Union, which sends its top team to annual national tournaments.
First of the bunch is Old Mission Beach Athletic Club. Best known for organizing the annual Over the Line Tournament, the club established a Rugby Football Club in 1966, and has consistently ranked among the top echelon of American club rugby since. In 52 years, Old Mission Beach has 15 national championships.
Other local teams have sprung up over time, including the Oceanside Chiefs, North County Gurkhas (playing in Escondido), and San Diego Old Aztecs, which was founded by San Diego State University alumni in 1978. Organized rugby at the university itself dates back to 1958, which is still relatively young compared to century-old rugby programs of northern California universities such as Stanford and Berkeley.
The United States isn’t exactly viewed as a rugby powerhouse, but thanks to players from those colleges, we do hold an interesting distinction: the U.S. has more Olympic gold medals for rugby than any other nation. We earned our first gold at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, when the only other country to field a team was the heavily favored France. And we repeated in 1924, despite Romania joining the fray.
But the sport was dropped from the official Olympics program and did not return to medal competition for 92 years. The 2016 summer games in Rio featured a rugby sevens tournament — seven-player teams playing 14 minute games — for both men and women.
United States rugby did not medal in the 2016 Olympics, but its participation has had a massive impact on rugby in San Diego. That’s because, in 2009, when the Olympic committee voted to return rugby to the summer games, the U.S. national rugby teams moved to San Diego to train at what was then called the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. Thanks to that lucky bit of geography, eleven players on the Legion’s 27-man roster have played with Team USA.
The missing link between soccer and American football, rugby predates the American game by half a century, purportedly started in 1823 by an irreverent British teen who flouted the first rule of British football: don’t use your hands. As the story goes, a student at the Rugby School in central England picked up the ball and ran with it until he was tackled, and two centuries later, watching men violently chase each other around a field is the one of the world’s most popular and profitable pastimes.
Rugby enthusiasts have described it to me a number of ways: as football played at soccer’s pace, or like basketball with tackling. Most of the action is similar to that one desperation play at the end of a football game, when clocks runs out and the team with the ball will lose the game if a player is tackled, so the players keep pitching the ball to each other as they scramble around the field. In that moment, we can clearly see how American football evolved from rugby.
Rugby is responsible for the oblong ball, for example, which got its shape, prior to the advent of rubber, from practice of sewing inflated pig bladders inside the leather ball to give it some bounce. Hence the name, pigskin.