Schools launch club rugby inaugural seasons

At a hastily arranged meeting at a Del Mar Starbucks in September, San Diego youth rugby coaching guru Ramon Samaniego and a handful of parents drew up their plan to launch the sport's high school club league inaugural season.

With their launch date just over two months away, they had to move quickly, attending to details ranging from ordering jerseys to finding fields to play and practice on.

And there were bigger challenges too, such as how to pay for it all and getting athletic directors on board.

"We had to put together a budget on the fly," Samaniego said, "literally, on napkins."

Their efforts paid off.

Last month, Torrey Pines and Cathedral Catholic were among 11 schools from Southern California and seven from San Diego County to field club teams.

Cathedral Catholic finished third in Southern California, going 3-2, with their only losses coming at the hands of Fallbrook, San Diego's top finisher.

The Dons fielded 40 players, about half coming from the football program.

Torrey Pines fielded an underclassmen-heavy team of about two dozen with half their numbers coming from the football program too.

Senior David Barton, a two-way lineman on the Dons' football team, started playing club rugby about a year ago at the prodding of Brad Harrington, a football teammate who now plays rugby at UC Berkeley.

Barton said he prefers the less regimented and specialized game of rugby, which doesn't restrict burly linemen from carrying the ball, nor exclude the svelte skilled players from tackling.

"You're blocking on one play and then on the next play you're running guys over," Barton said. "I never got the ball when I was playing football. That's one thing that I really enjoy."

The high school league is an offshoot of the San Diego Mustangs, a youth program headed by Samaniego that has taken off since its inception seven years ago. The Mustangs have six age groups, from 8-and-under to 19-and-under.

Samaniego said the league successfully put together teams at all but three of the 14 schools originally targeted in Southern California. He and his supporters aim to eventually get rugby sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF). Rugby is sanctioned at the collegiate level by the NCAA, but Samaniego said he wasn't aware of rugby being sanctioned anywhere in the nation at the high school level.

"I think it's important to grow the game and if you have the sanctioned support from the schools you're going to get that support we need," he said.

Samaniego said the sport has undergone a cultural transformation in the last two decades, going from a sport known for hard-partying brawlers to one that embraces sportsmanship and promotes camaraderie.

He noted that the club rugby circuit has added two officials who augment one referee, and more stringent officiating.

Samaniego said the measures have made the game safer, and added a level of camaraderie unheard of in other youth sports that he feels push competition on young people too hard.

After games, the two teams typically share a meal on the home team's dime, he said.

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