When the ball at last would emerge from the straining, pushing pack of humanity that formed the scrums and stirred up the sand beneath the sun-swept field, it never seemed to belong to the Belmont Shore Rugby Football Club.
“Our boys are not doing well at all,” said Coach Denis Berg as one of the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club’s swift backs, after catching the last in a series of laterals, raced almost untouched into the end zone for a four-point “try.”
The two-point conversion kick extended the San Diego side’s lead to 16-6 in last Saturday afternoon’s match at Cal State Long Beach between the archrivals, who were atop the eight-team Southern California Rugby Football Union with 6-0 league records.
Berg, a New Zealander with a nose permanently rearranged by 40 years in the sport, further observed, “Our lack of tackling is letting us down right now.”
For Belmont Shore’s supporters in lawn chairs along the sidelines, and the team itself, which had defeated Old Mission Beach the week before in a tournament (which did not count in league standings), the deficit was hard to swallow.
The Belmont Shore club, playing a season that runs from late October to May, has always been serious about rugby. One of the top clubs in the nation in recent years, it has consistently made the prestigious Pacific Coast playoffs. The club has three other teams, composed of players who strive to be among the 15 who were playing with the first side Saturday afternoon.
“They don’t consider it a recreational sport,” said Mike Tracy, 45, the club president who was watching the match from beyond the end zone, near the team’s orthopedic surgeon. “They have the same commitment as Olympic athletes. They practice twice a week and are expected to train on their own.”
The most committed--Ray Nelson, Chuck Tunnaliffe, Jay Wilkerson, Jon Finstuen and Rich Schurfeld--hope to be candidates for the national team that will compete in England this fall in the World Cup.
Thick-thighed men in their 20s, the Belmont Shore players looked like construction workers, though only a couple actually are. Nelson is a banker, Finstuen a geophysicist, Wilkerson a yacht builder. And a blue-jerseyed teammate at the bottom of a sweaty pileup could be a teacher, attorney, doctor, accountant, stockbroker, fireman, bartender or fashion designer.
Players receive no salaries because rugby is strictly an amateur sport, and they must pay their expenses on trips and dues of $150. They take turns washing the jerseys--presumably with cold water to get the blood out.
Trailing 22-6 at halftime, the Belmont Shore players gathered at midfield as Berg and co-coach Bob Wilson, an Australian, blistered them with identical accents.
“It’s . . . disgusting, fellas, we need more urgency, we need to show some . . . guts,” Wilson said. “Nothing but breakdowns every . . . time. We need to put them on the deck.”
But Old Mission Beach, which twice has been national champion, scored again at the start of the second half.
As Belmont Shore’s long afternoon continued, through a dispiriting series of scrums, breakaway runs and kicks that sent the white oblong ball bobbing like a wounded bird, Susan Maddocks kept aiming her video camera, especially at her husband, forward Bryan Sullivan.
“When people see the game for the first time, they say, ‘My God, it’s barbaric,’ ” she said. “My mom said it looked as if they were out there to kill each other.”
She said her husband certainly is not the stereotypical rugby player: “Bryan doesn’t even drink.”
The final score was 44-6, the worst defeat anyone could remember Belmont Shore suffering.
The fans, one of whom said, “We played like the Iraqis today,” formed the traditional tunnel at the end of the field and consoled the players as they ran through it.
Joe McGlinchey had blood on his face as he took off his soaked grass-stained jersey, and Schurfeld limped away with an ice bag on his knee. They shrugged off their injuries, but not their performance. “I’ve never been beat up in so many ways,” Schurfeld said.
In rugby tradition, the host team always provides a postgame party for the visitors. In New Zealand, Australia and South Africa, these are held in clubhouses, in which team photos and jerseys of famous players are displayed on the walls.
“That’s our dream, to have our own clubhouse,” Tracy said. “But it’s difficult when you’re a nonprofit organization, especially in an area where property is expensive.”
So the party Saturday was at the Clipper Sports Lounge in Long Beach, where the walls held only beer signs.
Max Cohen, 64, who wore an ascot, accepted a beer from Phil Drum, the club’s beefy social chairman, and proclaimed, “I played at Stellenbosch University, the most powerful rugby club in the world, near Cape Town, South Africa.”
Cohen, who had come from Santa Monica to see the match, went on: “The way OMBAC played today they could beat most of the rugby clubs in the world.”
McGlinchey had changed into a dress shirt, but his face still looked as if someone had marked it with a red crayon. His wife, Lynda, had of course seen him like that before. “A couple of weeks ago we had to spend a night in the emergency room,” she said. “But that turned out to be just stitches.”
The rival players mingled easily. One keg turned into two, and then a third was tapped, but the fellowship flowed just as freely--and without any ribald songs normally associated with rugby.
“At this level, you don’t see raucous behavior, even at the parties,” said Tony Evans, manager of the image-conscious Belmont Shore club. “There’s none of that hooliganism you see at lower levels.”
No player enjoyed basking in the atmosphere more than Finstuen, 27, who played football at Millikan High School and Occidental College. “I like it better than football,” he said. “I like the spontaneity of having always to react, to kick, pass, run or tackle. I’m just addicted. I can’t imagine stopping until my body stops functioning.”
Bodies were what Beverly Hill, 35, of Hollywood, was thinking about.
“My God, this is a virtual smorgasbord of men,” said Hill, in an off-the-shoulder red sweater dress over black stretch pants.
It had been her first rugby game and now it was her first rugby party. Already she was looking a week ahead, planning a trip to San Diego for Saturday’s rematch.
HOW RUGBY IS PLAYED
The object in rugby, played between teams of 15 on a field 110 yards long and 75 yards wide, is to run or kick the ball into the end zone and down it for a four-point “try.” The conversion kick after a try is worth two points. A three-point penalty goal is scored by place-kicking or drop-kicking the ball through the uprights of the goal posts from the point of a penalty. A three-point field goal can be scored at any time by drop-kicking the ball through the uprights. There are two 40-minute halves and substitutions are allowed only for injuries. Blocking and forward passing are not allowed. There are eight forwards--who, during a scrum, attempt to win possession of the ball--and seven backs. The ball can be advanced by being run, passed laterally or kicked.