American rugby is a game of beery smells and the slapping of backs. It is a game of collegiate camaraderie and a game of the senses. Nowhere is this better exemplified than at the annual Monterey National Rugby Tournament, held last weekend on the peninsula south of San Francisco.
Fittingly, the ocean fog at times held low and pungent for this unique battle royal of the sport. The fog compressed and accented the heavenly scents of sage, pine and woodsmoke, and the sounds of rugby, too. Through the din of the crowds came the hollow thudding of kicks to unprotected rib cages. Even the wrenching of knees seemed audible, the ripping of ears, too, more and more of them as the athletes grew tired. Said Jim Waste, coach of the BATS (Bay Area Touring Side), "I don't know of any sporting event in the world more demanding than what we've got right here."
The demands began at eight o'clock Saturday morning on a polo field adjoining Pebble Beach Golf Course. Each of 32 teams played a 24-minute game to separate the men from the supermen. Then the 16 winners played three more games of 40 minutes each before nightfall. On Sunday the two teams that were still undefeated—Santa Monica, last year's winner, and New South Wales Country—played for the championship in a game 80 minutes long. The Aussies had no trouble with Santa Monica, winning 36-6. Their passing attack was especially impressive to Yankee onlookers. Inasmuch as teams that lost also kept playing, there were four games going at once for nearly the entire weekend. By Sunday afternoon bright broad stripes were dancing before even closed eyes.
The similarity between rugby and football is only superficial. There are no downs in rugby, no regrouping after offensive rushes, which only end with a penalty call or a ball out of bounds. If the ball is trapped a scrum is formed—that centipede huddle of human limbs. The ball is shunted around underneath, and finally one or two or 32 wildly flailing legs kick it to a waiting back, and the game continues, flowing up and down the field. That is how it was at Monterey more often than not. U.S. rugby, the best in the world 50 years ago, was getting better and better.
That was dramatically brought home on the Wednesday before play began, up in San Francisco. Australia's touring New South Wales team, on its way down to Monterey from British Columbia, stopped to play a group of Northern California All-Stars and lost 18-3. The Australians had four members of their country's national team on the field and man for man had far more experience than the All-Stars, but they didn't have the Americans' size and background in football-style tackling.
Said beaming Jim Waste, who coached the All-Stars, "Give me six weeks' practice and I'll take them anywhere in the world."
One of the fearsome Californians was 23-year-old Jeff Sevy, a 255-pound, 6'5" defensive tackle from Berkeley. Sevy recently signed with Hawaii of the World Football League. He says he signed because he wants to make a living, but that he prefers rugby, "a great social sport, not a hate sport like football."
At Monterey, where they all played for love, not money, Sevy and the other All-Stars returned to their respective teams. Perhaps the biggest players were Sevy's side from Cal at Berkeley where, as at many large California schools, there is a 70-year history of rugby competition. Back in the days when Teddy Roosevelt was lambasting college football as brutal and unsportsmanlike, Cal and Stanford gave up the game and for about 20 years played rugby instead. In the 1920s U.S. sides, composed mainly of Cal and Stanford students, twice won the Olympic Games.
But if football skills and size were the West Coast's strengths at Monterey, they were also its weakness. Old habits were not broken overnight. The New South Welshmen, some with 15 years of rugby experience or more, tackled and went for the ball. The big Americans, some coming late to the sport, seemed to forget the ball and reverted to doing in the runner. And when carrying the ball in heavy going, they held on to grind out an extra yard when they should have been letting go. But they were learning fast. As one Aussie said at Monterey, "The U.S. will be a devastating international force when their big players get a little more experience."
The Monterey tournament was 16 years old last week, which makes it the oldest in the nation. It has always been held somewhere on the Monterey Peninsula, that lush home of rock, pine, surf, money and golf balls. But this was only its fourth year at Pebble Beach or, specifically, at the Collins Polo Field. Polo and Pebble Beach sound about as right as Hope and Crosby, but there are those who have wondered where rugby comes in. During last year's tournament a man who lived across the street from the polo grounds surprised a rugger and ruggerette playing Adam and Eve in his front yard. He had other visitors, too, and that was almost it for rugby. The host, Del Monte Properties, owners of the Pebble Beach Golf Course, evicted the ruggers and then abruptly changed their corporate mind and invited them back for last weekend. As Robert W. Campbell, Del Monte P.R. and advertising director, put it, "Most of these players have gone to college somewhere, and some will be bank presidents or presidents of steel companies some day."
But last week none of the 500-odd hairy guys in striped shirts and bandages were acting out their future roles in life. Two of them took that now obligatory sprint to the goal posts and back during a game, clad only in their striped socks. Later one of them said, "That was a rugby move. I'll have plenty of time for polo when I'm old and rich."