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    Alexander: Rugby FC Los Angeles tries to advance the game
    • June 13, 2024

    TORRANCE — It’s not necessarily that rugby – or, specifically, Major League Rugby – is a tough sell in SoCal. But part of the challenge faced by Rugby FC Los Angeles in its inaugural season may have been the way the previous attempt to bring MLR to the region ended.

    The L.A. Giltinis were named after a drink mix promoted by the team’s owner, Adam Gilchrist (Gilchrist … martini … get it?). They played in the Coliseum for two seasons, won the league’s championship in 2021 but were disqualified from the playoffs the next season over violations of salary cap regulations. Subsequently, they were expelled for “conduct detrimental to the league,” while the Austin team – also owned by Gilchrist – was booted for failing to cooperate with an investigation into player compensation violations.

    Seems straightforward. But that likely left a sour taste in the mouths of those who had become supporters.

    “I think a lot of the fans of that club were a bit bitter about that, so it was hard to kind of get people back on board,” said Tasman Smith, who played for the Giltinis and is now a member of Rugby FC L.A.

    The new franchise, relocated from Atlanta after last season, seems to be building its clientele as it goes.

    “You can definitely feel it building slightly,” Smith said. “I mean, if you compare like our first game (March 3 against Dallas), the turnout, compared to our game two weeks ago in San Diego in the Cali Cup, it was a massive growth. And yeah, lots more people out there, people smiling. It’s always good. But (with) a few more wins under our belt, that’s the best way to get fans is to start winning more.”

    Rugby FC Los Angeles, the local franchise in Major League Rugby, practices Wednesday, June 5, 2024, at Kinetca Soccer Center in Torrance. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

    That’s been a challenge. RFCLA (4-8-1), which has won three of its last five but still needs a miracle to snag a playoff berth with three games left, will finish its home schedule at 3 p.m. Sunday against NOLA Gold at the track stadium at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson.

    RFCLA has played some of its home games in the track facility and some in the main stadium in Carson. At this stage of development, playing there probably makes more sense than playing at the cavernous Coliseum. In the meantime, true to the spirit of the rugby culture – the essence of which boils down to beating the bejabbers out of their opponents on the field, without pads, and then joining them for beers afterward – the athletes have been trying to spread the word.

    Cristian Rodriguez grew up here, played youth and club rugby here, and was also on the Giltinis roster. When that club was disbanded, he went to New York in a dispersal draft, played there in 2023, then stepped away to run a youth program in Hawaiian Gardens and take over as head rugby coach for Loyola Marymount’s club team.

    Christian Rodriguez, left, plays for Rugby FC Los Angeles, the local franchise in Major League Rugby, during a practice Wednesday, June 5, 2024, at Kinetca Soccer Center in Torrance.(Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

    And when Niall Saunders suffered an injury recently, Rodriguez was pulled back into the fray with his new hometown team.

    “It wasn’t like I was sitting on the couch,” he said. “I’d been staying active just in case anything came up. I think the plan initially was to take a year off, and everybody knows how that goes.”

    He’s been playing since he was 13, part of a SoCal rugby environment that is quietly percolating on the youth and club levels.

    “Every year you go to the national championships for youth rugby, a couple of Southern California teams are there dominating,” he said. “It’s not big compared to soccer and football, but within rugby around the United States, it is big.”

    Tapping into that rugby community, both youth and adult, is critical in spreading the word.

    “When we go out to Saturday sessions at Belmont Shore, for example, or L.A. Rugby Club, it’s literally like a club day you’d see on a Saturday back home in Sydney,” said Smith, who was actually born in New York but grew up in Australia. “You talk to all the younger kids, all the parents and stuff, and try to get them on board as fans of the team and everything, get them to our games.

    “Hopefully one day all those young kids will be playing in our academy and then hopefully playing for L.A. in the future.”

    Rugby seems hard to comprehend for the novice or casual viewer, but there is this rule of thumb: The ball must be passed laterally or backward, with no screens, picks or blocks, and when a runner is down it’s placed on the ground and play continues almost immediately. If the ball is passed forward, it’s called a “knock-on” and there’s a change of possession.

    Beyond that, it’s not that dissimilar to what we know as football – field position, and thus the kicking game, is important. Scoring a “try” (what we know as a touchdown) is worth five points and followed by a two-point conversion try. Drop kicks, for field goals, are worth three points. They play 15-on-15 for 80 minutes, two 40-minute halves, on a field that’s 20 yards wider and 10 yards larger than a U.S. football field, with no huddles and no shoulder pads.

    Rugby FC Los Angeles, the local franchise in Major League Rugby, practices Wednesday, June 5, 2024, at Kinetca Soccer Center in Torrance. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

    Most football players could adapt to rugby, but not all. The 300-pound plus lineman need not apply.

    “The anaerobic capacity of football players sometimes just doesn’t match what you get in rugby, because it’s just a full aerobic capacity and it’s just nonstop,” RFCLA coach Steve Brett said. “The football guys are playing 15 and 20 seconds and rugby, you can play for two minutes in a row.”

    Stephen Brett is the head coach of Rugby FC Los Angeles, the local franchise in Major League Rugby. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

    Wide receivers, tight ends, linebackers and defensive linemen would fit in, Brett said, and defensive backs as well. One of RFCLA’s players, Bruce Yun, was a defensive tackle and linebacker at Long Beach Wilson High, converted to rugby at Long Beach State and was a member of Belmont Shore RFC before the L.A. team signed him.

    Rodriguez is not tall – when I suggested 5-foot-7, he cracked, “A little shorter but I appreciate that” – but added: “I’m out there sharing the field with a 6-6 guy. And then another guy who’s maybe 6-2 but also about 230, you know. So it’s for everybody and they all kind of do the same thing. Everybody catches, everybody passes, everybody runs and everybody tackles. Like there’s unique skills within the positions, but everybody’s on the field sharing the same goal to do the same thing. So it’s pretty fun.”

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    The L.A. team had a short runway to get assembled and organized following the move from Atlanta.

    “We had four weeks to set it up,” Brett said, and “didn’t get all the things that we wanted to put in place. But again, you know, we’ve built it over the last 4 or 5 months … The biggest thing that I wanted to do was just create a culture and create an environment. I mean, the cohesion comes on the backside of that on the field.”

    Unlike L.A.’s last team in Major League Rugby, maybe this one will stay a while.

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    Rugby FC Los Angeles, the local franchise in Major League Rugby, practices Wednesday, June 5, 2024, at Kinetca Soccer Center in Torrance. (Photo by Axel Koester, Contributing Photographer)

    ​ Orange County Register