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.

“When we teach the youth it’s about respect,” Samaniego said. “Respect for the refs, respect for the rules and respect for their opponents. We don’t allow any unsportsmanlike conduct, physically or verbally.”

Said Barton: “You might hate one guy during the game and get into a fight with them, but after the game you’re friends.

“It’s different than football. The camaraderie is awesome.”

Barton acknowledged he was initially concerned about playing a full contact sport without a helmet and pads, and although he has suffered shoulder and arm injuries playing rugby, he doesn’t believe it to be any less safe than football.

“You learn to tackle in ways that aren’t going to injure you,” he said.

Cathedral coach Matt Baier noted that a key difference from football is an increased emphasis on player participation. Baier said that just one of his team’s two weekly games count in the league standings, enabling him to get everyone playing time.

“There’s a big emphasis on camaraderie,” Baier said. “In football for a lot of guys, that means standing on sidelines and doing warm-ups and going home. As a coach I like that kids who aren’t that big or don’t’ stand out in practice get a chance to play. You get a chance to see what they can do on the field, and you give them a chance to keep developing.”

Anyone interested in the Samaniego’s youth rugby program can e-mail him at