Football

Bay Area college rugby is elite. What will it take for sport to become mainstream at high school level?

MORAGA – Built to accommodate supporters of Saint Mary’s now-defunct football program, the stands on this day were populated with fans of the ancient sport America’s Game is based upon. Two factions, one decked out in red and blue, the other blue and gold, streamed into repurposed bleachers. 

The 4,000-plus onlookers were there to watch the college rugby regular-season match of the year. The match that would decide Bay Area bragging rights. The match that has years of history behind it. 

Cal versus Saint Mary’s. 

“It means everything,” Saint Mary’s sophomore star Dom Besag said before scoring three tries, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown, in SMC’s 38-31 victory last month.

But while interest in this match reached a fever pitch, the sport that dates back to the 19th century continues to fight for its place at the college and high school levels in the United States.

Saint Mary's hooker Nate Deegan (16) stretches across the goal line for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s hooker Nate Deegan (16) stretches across the goal line for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 

USA Rugby – not the NCAA – governs the Cal and Saint Mary’s teams. Bay Area high schools that offer the sport aren’t sanctioned by the California Interscholastic Federation. Instead, they’re classified as club teams – and are few and far between.

Of the 1,624 schools that play under the CIF umbrella, only about 40 have rugby teams – and that number isn’t expected to rise anytime soon. 

CIF executive director Ron Nocetti said there are “pockets” across the state that play the game that is most popular in New Zealand, Great Britain, Australia and South Africa, but the next and probably most challenging step is expanding.

“I think it’s a great sport,” Nocetti told the Bay Area News Group. “It’s just a matter of getting support and getting the number of schools to grow to the point where it makes sense for member schools to say, ‘You know, we should consider adding this.’”

MORAGA -- De La Salle players celebrate with the trophy. De La Salle defeated Los Alamitos in the 2024 California single-school championship at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, Calif. on March 2, 2024 (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group)MORAGA — De La Salle, shown here in a file photo, is one of the few high schools in the Bay Area to have a club rugby team (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

All it would take for the CIF to put rugby up for a vote is for a member school to present a proposal. But then it would have to garner enough support among the governing body’s 10 sections to give the sport the green light.

As it stands, private schools such as De La Salle, St. Francis, Serra and Bishop O’Dowd offer club rugby. But that doesn’t mean you have to attend one of those schools to play the sport.

Club teams that aren’t affiliated with a specific school are another option.

Timote Pahulu, a student at Fremont High in Oakland, plays for the Lamorinda Rugby Club, one of a handful of clubs across the Bay Area that provide an avenue for kids to play.

“This sport brings a lot of joy, and helps create family through the rugby community,” Pahulu said. “Clubs give opportunities to the kids at a lot of the public schools.”

Saint Mary's players line up for the national anthem before a men's Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s players line up for the national anthem before a men’s Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 

Still, the sport faces challenges to become mainstream.

One major obstacle is the popularity of football.

Lamorinda co-president Andrew Parrot said that when players choose between the sports, the gridiron wins out most of the time. 

Of course, there are exceptions.

Saint Mary’s standout Erich Storti played quarterback, wideout and safety for De La Salle. Cal’s Dom Paga played linebacker for Menlo-Atherton. 

Bishop O’Dowd rugby coach Ray Lehner believes that his sport helps football players. 

“I really sell pretty hard to the football players that if you want to have a better motor for the game, and if you want to be a better open-field tackler, then rugby is the sport for you,” said Lehner, who is an assistant coach on O’Dowd’s football staff. 

When Lehner preaches the rugby gospel, he can point toward Saint Mary’s storied program to turn skeptics into believers.

MORAGA - A Cal rugby player runs with the ball during the first half of a game against Saint Mary's. Saint Mary's defeated Cal 38-31 on March 23, 2024 in Moraga (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group)MORAGA – A Cal rugby player runs with the ball during the first half of a game against Saint Mary’s. Saint Mary’s defeated Cal 38-31 on March 23, 2024 in Moraga (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

In their match last month against Cal, the small but quick Gaels made the tackles they needed to make to prevail despite often being outweighed by the bulkier Bears.

Saint Mary’s has won three 15-man national championships over the past decade but still views itself as an underdog when compared to its Berkeley neighbor, which has won 24 national titles under legendary coach Jack Clark.

Tim O’Brien, Saint Mary’s coach since 2008, said players typically don’t know much about the sport when they arrive at his school but develop into “pretty special ballplayers.”

Saint Mary's Gaels head coach Tim O'Brien talks to his players during halftime of a men's Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s Gaels head coach Tim O’Brien talks to his players during halftime of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 

That was clear during the epic victory over Cal.

De La Salle products Besag and Storti are among the many Bay Area natives on the Saint Mary’s roster and are candidates for the Scholtz award, the sport’s equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. 

The dynamic duo didn’t end up in Moraga by accident. The program’s sterling reputation and word of mouth among local high school players serves the team well. 

“What you have are the guys who are with you, and you know they’re similar to you in a way because they’re from the Bay Area.” said Deer Valley alum King Matu, a Saint Mary’s senior.

Besag added, “That’s community, and that’s knowing I’ve wanted to come here since I was a little kid.”

MORAGA - Saint Mary's fans and students cheer as Cal fans are dejected after Saint Mary's won a regular season game against Cal. Saint Mary's defeated Cal 38-31 on March 23, 2024 in Moraga (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group)MORAGA – Saint Mary’s fans and students cheer as Cal fans are dejected after Saint Mary’s won a regular season game against Cal. Saint Mary’s defeated Cal 38-31 on March 23, 2024 in Moraga (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

The tight bonds with the community help Saint Mary’s – and Cal – put spectators in the stands, something Clark mentioned after his team’s recent match in Moraga.

“We get nice crowds in Berkeley, and we had a good crowd out here today, too,” Clark said. “We’re happy to have a good team in close proximity to us.”

Parrott, the Lamorinda club’s co-president, called the Saint Mary’s-Cal rivalry game a “great advertisement” for young players who want to play at the next level. 

“It’s a really good experience, and I get to see what it’s like to play at an upper level,” Lamorinda player Mani Finau said.

BERKELEY - Cal-Berkeley rugby players listen to coach Jack Clark in the postgame huddle after defeating Navy on Mar. 16, 2024 in Berkeley Calif (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group)BERKELEY – Cal-Berkeley rugby players listen to coach Jack Clark in the postgame huddle after defeating Navy on Mar. 16, 2024 in Berkeley Calif (Joseph Dycus/Bay Area News Group) 

Everyone who watched and played in the game seemed to have their own ideas for growing the sport they love at the high school and collegiate levels.

“I think that if a couple people put their heads down and lead the way, the sport could become big,” said Besag, who also plays for the USA national team. 

Saint Mary’s is the West bracket’s top seed in the Division I playoffs. Cal is seeded fourth. Both won first-round matches last weekend, setting up a rematch between the powerhouses on Saturday in Moraga.

The next generation of Gaels and Bears will be watching as the teams battle it out for a spot in the national semifinals.

Saint Mary's 8-man King Matu (8) makes a break for the goal line during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s 8-man King Matu (8) makes a break for the goal line during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's front Matt Abbes (6) streaks to the end zone for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s front Matt Abbes (6) streaks to the end zone for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's fullback Tatum Pappas, top, knocks the ball out of the grasp of Grand Canyon's Marcus Terzoli (11) during the first half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s fullback Tatum Pappas, top, knocks the ball out of the grasp of Grand Canyon’s Marcus Terzoli (11) during the first half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's front Matt Abbes (6) is lifted off the ground by Grand Canyon's Jesse Emerson (1) during the first half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s front Matt Abbes (6) is lifted off the ground by Grand Canyon’s Jesse Emerson (1) during the first half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's back Mario Storti (15) kicks a successful conversion during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s back Mario Storti (15) kicks a successful conversion during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game against Grand Canyon, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's hooker Nate Deegan (16) stretches across the goal line for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s hooker Nate Deegan (16) stretches across the goal line for a try against Grand Canyon during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's Gaels players dance a jig after scoring against Grand Canyon during the first half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s Gaels players dance a jig after scoring against Grand Canyon during the first half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's back Erich Storti, foreground, and his teammates celebrate their 78-7 victory over the Grand Canyon Antelopes in a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s back Erich Storti, foreground, and his teammates celebrate their 78-7 victory over the Grand Canyon Antelopes in a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's utility back Inoke Waqavesi (10) laterals the ball to teammate Tatum Pappas (14) during the first half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s utility back Inoke Waqavesi (10) laterals the ball to teammate Tatum Pappas (14) during the first half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 
Saint Mary's back Erich Storti (13) drop kicks the ball past Grand Canyon's Lachlan Jackson (8) during the second half of a men's Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group)Saint Mary’s back Erich Storti (13) drop kicks the ball past Grand Canyon’s Lachlan Jackson (8) during the second half of a men’s Division I rugby playoff game, Saturday, April 6, 2024, in Moraga, Calif. (D. Ross Cameron for the Bay Area News Group) 

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