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Creating a Winner Out of the Chaos Known as Rugby : Old Mission Beach Athletic Club Tries for Its First National Championship

Times Staff Writer

To the untrained eye, rugby is the most unorganized of sports.

Players take the field with no equipment besides cleats and a ball and fall into formations with names such as scrums and rucks . Shouting. Elbows flying. Feet stomping. Chaos.

Off the field, the sport doesn’t seem much better. Beer drinking. Dirty songs. Noise. Chaos.

But beyond the apparent disorder, there is a form and a structure to the game of rugby.

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On a good team, the large forwards fight for field position and possession of the ball. The backs move swiftly up to the ball, passing it in synchronization, each move smoothly orchestrated. A well-organized team is a successful team.

Organization also breeds success off the field. And San Diego’s Old Mission Beach Athletic Club is a testament to that fact.

This weekend, the OMBAC rugby team is in Albany, N.Y., looking for its first national championship.

Four regional champions are in the national playoffs. OMBAC, the Pacific Coast champion, will face Denver Saturday, and Milwaukee will play Washington. The winners will play Sunday to decide the U.S. national club champion.

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“Getting to Albany is just one step of many,” Mike Saunders, OMBAC’s captain, said. “We set goals throughout the year. Winning the national championship was the last one.”

For the past few years, OMBAC has worked in a methodical and organized fashion to strengthen its team, turning it into one of the country’s top rugby organizations.

The culmination of that work occurred April 17, when OMBAC beat the defending national champion, Old Blues of Berkeley, coming back from a 16-3 deficit to score 25 unanswered points for a 28-16 victory.

The Old Blues, an outgrowth of the University of California’s highly successful program, has won the national club championship seven times in the nine years it has been held. The Old Blues have set the standard of excellence for U.S. rugby, one that OMBAC has worked hard to emulate.

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“OMBAC’s success has been a long time coming,” said Bob Watkins, a former OMBAC player and coach who has been associated with the club since 1967.

Watkins also serves as chairman of the U.S.A. Rugby Football Union and is a former president of the Pacific Coast Rugby Football Union.

He and other members who have been with the club from its early days in the late 1960s--including OMBAC’s current coach, Bing Dawson, and club president, Pat Boyle--decided around 1980 to work to build OMBAC into a team of national prominence, capable of attracting top talent.

The Old Blues provided the model for success.

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“We identified how the Old Blues were benefiting from their relationship with Cal,” Watkins said. “So we went to what was--at the time--a dormant program at San Diego State and worked to help that program get better.”

San Diego State has become better. Last year, the Aztecs won the national championship, and this year they lost to Cal, a frequent national champion, in the regional finals.

The San Diego State program has served as a feeder program to OMBAC. Several San Diego State alumni are on the team’s roster of 60-plus, and six former Aztecs are on the 25-man traveling squad that will play in Albany.

But the primary reason for the club’s success, according to those involved, is its beneficial relationship with the parent Old Mission Beach Athletic Club.

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“The success of the team stems from the fact that it has a structure behind it,” Watkins said. “That infrastructure is a support system that gives us the ability to do a lot of things.”

Said Boyle: “It’s a situation that’s very different than most amateur athletics.”

The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, best known for its annual Over-the-Line tournament, is a social/athletic club with more than 300 members. Every February, the club sponsors the OMBAC rugby tournament, which is a fund-raiser for the rugby team.

But in addition to providing an in-place organizational structure and a strong fund-raising base, the club also serves as a social network. If a new player needs a job or a place to live, he can plug into the club’s existing network.

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Given that strong support system, combined with the appealing location of San Diego and the ability to play and train year-round, it’s not surprising that OMBAC has been able to attract the highest-quality players.

There are five players from the U.S. Eagles--the national team made up of the top talent from around the country--playing for OMBAC.

Team captain Saunders, a San Diego State graduate, has played for OMBAC since 1983. Eagles Brian Vizzard, from Michigan State, and Kevin Higgins, from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, came to OMBAC last season. Joining the club this season were Sam Vaca, a national team player who previously played with the San Francisco Rugby Club, and Rick Crivellone, an Eagle who came from Portland, Ore.

“We have become a rugby oasis in the middle of a wasteland,” Watkins said. “The San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed of rugby with more than 40 clubs. The success of the Old Blues is based on 50 years of rugby tradition at Cal and Stanford. But we have had to work to attract quality athletes.”

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OMBAC’s evolution into a rugby powerhouse has not occurred without criticism. Other teams have accused the club of recruiting and stealing players. Players on other teams have sported shirts bearing the OMBAC symbol with a red slash through it and the words “OMBAC, the best team money can buy.”

Said Boyle: “And our team made up their own shirts that say, ‘So, where’s my check?’ It’s an unfair characterization that is a combination of jealousy, misinformation and humor.”

Said Watkins: “We’re not doing anything different from other teams. We don’t go to teams and recruit players. But if a player is looking for the opportunity to be more successful, we’re not going to turn him down.”

Dan Hickey, the current president of the Pacific Coast Rugby Football Union who lives in the Bay Area, agrees.

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“OMBAC should be given credit for going out and building a strong team,” Hickey said. “They’ve never been a real threat until this year, when they’ve loaded up with new players. But that’s not wrong. Everyone tries to do what they’ve done.”

OMBAC, like the Old Blues before it, is favored to win the national championship.

“But I think it’s too early to talk about dynasty,” Hickey said. “Everyone writes off the Boston Celtics every year, but they always come back. The Old Blues are too solid a team. They’ll be back.”


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