LONG BEACH — At the start of the game, when the players were putting in their mouthpieces, the coach had ordered, "Be mean. Intimidate."
But now it was late in the championship game and their bodies--and chances--were being ground into the dust. The other team was being mean and intimidating.
The proud Belmont Shore Women's Rugby Club, which had expected to defeat the Surfers of San Diego and win its own Mid-Winter Classic, showed the strain.
Faces were flushed and sweaty. Hair was scraggly, eyes were slits against the sun. Pieces of brown grass clung like lint to black knee socks.
Bodies were thrown in the same manner that cowboys wrestle down calves at a rodeo. Legs and arms were tangled and endangered in the human packs, called scrums, which push against each other, trying to gain possession of the ball so it can be pitched to speedy backs. They then try to score by crossing the end line before being tackled.
This was a rough business--a typical rugby afternoon. After all, what other sport can claim the motto, "Give blood; play rugby"?
But the women accepted it. Adhering to the sport's unwritten rule that frowns on fighting, they never lost their tempers.
"Life in the scrum is enduring pain," said ruddy-faced Corrine Strege of the Belmont Shore team.
Strege, 28, is president of the 11-team Southern California Women's Rugby Assn.
"I'm the famous head-cut person," she said after a victorious first-round game Saturday. "I've had about 15 stitches. But it's not as dangerous as it looks."
She turned to a teammate and said, "What have we had today, a couple of lumps on the head?"
"Well, there was that separated clavicle," the teammate said, referring to an earlier misfortune suffered by a member of the UCLA team.
A few feet away, another player had an ice bag on her arm , which was in a sling made out of a jersey.
The Belmont Shore Club, which has existed since 1974, is a power in the Southern California Women's Rugby Assn. It has gone to the national tournament in Chicago three times and won it once.
While the sport rarely receives much media coverage, its devoted players compete each weekend from January through May. In April, the top men's and women's teams compete in the Santa Barbara International Tournament, one of the largest in the country. Belmont Shore won that tournament last year.
Rugby teams consist of 15 players--eight forwards, who try to win possession of the ball for the seven backs, who pass, kick or run with the ball. The players do not wear padding.
The game's object is to carry or kick the ball into the end zones and touch it down for a "try" (four points) and kick the ball through goal posts (two points). A drop-kick through the opponents' goal is worth three points.
The players showed a nonchalant confidence before their first-round game Saturday against a team from the San Fernando Valley.
When Strege rejoined her teammates after a pregame meeting of captains, she told them, "The referee is the punk rocker from Chicago."
She explained later that the referee had shown the players some Chicago bars during the nationals a few years ago.
"Should we bop out there?" a player wondered.
Instead, they ran yelling onto the field through an aisle formed by the reserve players.
"Our love of the game is so strong, you just feel it when you go on the field," said Sue Actor, one of the reserves.
Valley couldn't catch up with Linda Slaughter, Belmont's swiftest player, and the host team won easily.
"Awesome, Shore," was the postgame cry.
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Most of the Belmont Shore players are from Long Beach. Among them are electricians, stockbrokers, teachers and delivery drivers. Many also play softball, racquetball and golf and occasionally surf. They hang around together.
"We're good at watching videos," said Strege, 28, a landscaper for the City of Hawthorne.
Strege, an eight-year veteran, said that rugby was beneficial because "you use all the facets of athletic ability--running, kicking, jumping."
But her first three words when asked about her attraction to the sport were: "It's the aggression."
The team's coach, Cindy Hartman, said aggression is not easy to teach to women.
"They're either aggressive or they're not," Hartman said. "I'm always saying, 'Stop being so nice.' They're constantly afraid--not of being hurt--but of hurting someone."
Cyndi Martinich called herself the "oldest surviving player." She is 33 and has played rugby for 10 years.
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"I have a monster ego," she said with a laugh.
But Hartman said, "That's sort of mandatory to play this game. You don't have to be hostile, but you have to think, 'I'm better than her.' "
Martinich, a junior high school science teacher, was a student at Cal State Long Beach when she was first asked to try rugby.
"You're crazy if you think you'll find me out there," Martinich said at the time.
But she's been out there a long while now and is reluctant to leave.
She finds peace amid the mayhem.