Cheers, to a Sport Gone Dry : Rugby: Players for the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club insist that their sport is no longer one of beer drinking and rowdiness. Those days are history.

Twice a week, after practice, they go to Tuba Man's for a little libation.

That's about it.

No, wait a minute. There's talk of building a clubhouse by Robb Field, where they practice. If it happens, there might be an occasional keg on hand.

And that would be about it . . . an occasional keg.


Rugby players?

Forgive these Old Mission Beach Athletic Club rugby players if they're just a little sick and tired of hearing about what a beer-drinking, hell-raising sport they play. Those days are history, at least at OMBAC's level. These guys will tell you that rugby is a full-fledged, legitimate, structured sport, not an excuse for a party.

"We're trying to get away from that image of the wild, ruthless, scumbag rugby guys," says Brian Vizard, who will compete for OMBAC in this weekend's 24-team OMBAC Tournament at Robb Field. "I hate to see rugby articles that portray rugby guys as beer swiggers and partiers. It's changed a lot, even since I started playing in '78."

Bing Dawson, 45, is OMBAC's coach. He started playing rugby at San Diego State in 1965, when it didn't amount to much more than a bunch of students tossing a funny-shaped ball around, smashing into each other and getting smashed afterward. Dawson played football for Don Coryell for two seasons in 1965 and '66 and was a graduate assistant from 1967-69. He has seen rugby progress during the past 20 years, which he has spent coaching football at Castle Park High School and Southwestern Community College and playing and coaching rugby for OMBAC.

"It's just light years different," Dawson says. "I can't even remember if we practiced (at SDSU). We played against each other with no concept of what the game was all about."

OMBAC players practice twice a week. They run and do weight training on their own time. Seven members of this year's team play for the U.S. national team. In defending two consecutive national championships with a two-season record of 36-5, OMBAC is 8-1 this season and 4-1 in the Southern California Rugby Football Union. The players are serious, and they train accordingly.

So beer and late nights are a thing of the past.

During games, players are sometimes required to run continuously for five or six minutes without a break. That's hard to do if you're closing the bar every night.

"It would be impossible to do that and play at this level," says Mike Saunders, OMBAC's captain. "All that carousing would just take too much out of you. It can't be done."

Still, the myth survives.

"I talk to local teachers who still have this idea of rugby being this bizarre, beer-drinking, annihilating sport," Dawson says. "I think it's basically a fable of the old days."

Over the years, Dawson has encouraged his football players to involve themselves in rugby, a good forum for conditioning. Yet most football players, Dawson says, aren't in any kind of shape to compete. The big linemen come out, huff and puff through the first day of practice, collapse and think "the heck with this." At least with football, you get a rest after each play.

"It's a joke," Dawson says. "The cardiovascular shape of a modern football player is non-existent."

That wasn't a problem for Dawson. He competed for OMBAC until he was 40 and then it was Hodgkin's disease that stopped him, not lack of desire. He was cured with chemotherapy, but his white blood count was nearly wiped out during treatment, so doctors advised him not to play.

That he played until the age of 40 is somewhat amazing in itself.

"Very unusual," Saunders says. "I just turned 30, and I think I'm on my last legs."

Said Vizard: "It's the most grueling sport I've ever played. You take a real battering every week."

In recent years, OMBAC players have been forced to endure a verbal battering too. Largely enhanced by the two national championships, OMBAC has gained the reputation of being a group that head hunts for talent. Their roster includes players from Michigan, Minnesota, Portland, South Africa and Fiji.

That doesn't always go over big with other teams, which cry foul. OMBAC has been accused of recruiting, though there are really no rules or regulations. A couple of years back, T-shirts began to appear that had OMBAC crossed out on the front and said: "The best team money can buy."

The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club funds a portion of the team's travel expenses and equipment costs and sometimes helps players get jobs. But nobody on the team feels guilty.

"We're not doing anything different from anyone else," says Vizard, who is from Grand Rapids, Mich. "Santa Monica and Belmont have their share of foreign players.

"It just got to be a joke. People thought we were actually getting paid to play here."

OMBAC's rebuttal is simple. Serious rugby players want to play for a serious team. Anyway, if you're planning to move, San Diego isn't a bad choice.

"You can't beat a place like San Diego to live, especially when you come from the Midwest." Vizard says. "I just love it here."

Whether OMBAC's success will help spread enthusiasm for rugby remains to be seen. Youth programs are still few and far between, particularly in Southern California. Most players aren't introduced to the sport until college.

Steve Forster, who played for SDSU and has been with OMBAC two seasons, is an exception. He grew up in San Mateo and started playing rugby at 10 in a youth league organized by his father, who is originally from Ireland, one of many countries in which rugby is huge.

"They treat it like a religion," Forster says. "Kids there look up to rugby players the way football players are looked up to over here."

When Forster was a kid, rugby was just an alternative to football, which he played in high school. He had to beg his friends to come out, saying: "We only have practice twice a week and we get to bang heads on Saturday."

The only difference now is he doesn't have to beg.

Rugby Notes

According to OMBAC administrator Pat Boyl, nine top OMBAC players will not compete in this weekend's tournament because of a tryout for the U.S. National Team to be held at SDSU. Forty of the nation's best club players have been invited to compete for 21 spots. Those chosen will travel to Ireland in April for a match against the Irish national team . . . There will be two divisions in this weekend's tournament: college and open. Teams will play four matches Saturday, the first two with 15-minute halves and the second two with 20-minute halves. The championship games for both divisions Sunday will be regulation 40-minute halves.

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