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Nasty Game, but Great Parties


GARDEN GROVE — Blood, dust, sweat, beer.

An hour after the Orange County Bucks and South Bay Islanders were grinding each other into a makeshift rugby field at sun-scorched Garden Grove Park, they were hoisting mugs together at a nearby sports bar, sharing pizza, trading jokes.

"It got pretty nasty in our game. But once that whistle blows it's shake hands and let's drink," said Hugh McKee, 29, of Huntington Beach, the Bucks' team president. "That's a big part of rugby, that 'third half.' "

The weekend warriors in the Southern California Rugby Football Union give up their Saturdays to play a brutal game they love. But it's a game most other people are only dimly aware of.

"For us it's a passion. There's no money involved. We do it for the love of the game," said Afa Mataia, general manager of the Orange County Islanders, whose players are all of Polynesian descent.

"It's a very demanding, physical game. Most people wouldn't participate in it," he said.

"You see some of the guys with bloody noses or whatever. It's all part of the game," Mataia said, smiling. "That's what separates rugby from football."

To the casual observer, rugby seems like a mix of football and soccer--the players wear no protective equipment, but they can carry the ball. The ball itself looks like a fat, white football.

The field is wider and slightly longer than in football. No forward passes are allowed, only lateral or backward passes during runs.

A forward pass or other violation results in the infamous scrum--eight players from each side huddling in a knot, heads down, trying to kick the ball backward into the arms of a teammate.

The player with the ball then runs upfield, and can pitch the ball to a line of teammates trailing him like geese flying south.

A pileup on the field and a momentary calm make it seem the play is dead. But the fellow on the ground squirts the ball to a teammate, and the dash is on again, until a player literally touches the ball down on the end zone grass for a score.

"It's the best team sport I've ever played," said Jimmy Guadheno, 37, of Long Beach, who plays for the Bucks. "In high school I was too small to do anything. But in rugby there's a position for me."

Between men's, women's and college teams, the union has 13 teams in Orange County. And on every team every player has a chance to crack the starting 15, regardless of speed or size, Guadheno said. "I've never been on a team that's turned down a player."

Bucks' Coach Dan Hill says he loves introducing former high school or college football linemen to the game. He hands them the ball, tells them they can score, then watches their eyes light up.

But Hill said he doesn't get that chance often enough. With the zeal of a missionary, Hill describes his sport as the perfect outlet for former high school or community college athletes who can't quite make it to the next level, yet aren't ready to be fitted for a Barcalounger.

"My biggest pain is, I think there are 100 young men looking out there for what I've got," he said. "I'm constantly on the lookout for new players."

And Hill said his team does outside charitable work to help change people's opinions of the game.

"When I started playing rugby, the sport had the reputation of being a bunch of beer-drinking idiots," Hill said. But playing for the Bucks are teachers, bankers and lawyers.

The game started 174 years ago at Rugby, the English prep school, and from there spread to Europe and throughout the Commonwealth, eventually reaching Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. There children play the game on sandlots as American kids do baseball, football and now soccer.

"We've played it all our lives," said Mission Faamausili, 44, who came to Garden Grove from American Samoa in 1975. "Some people say it's scary. We know the game. We grew up with it. It's like part of us."

Faamausili, with a fierce expression, close-cropped hair and tattoos of traditional island design orbiting his biceps, is an intimidating presence on the field. After the game, though, he's laughing and joking with opponents and teammates, shooting nine-ball while celebrating the Islanders' division championship. They beat Kern County, 47-10, to finish with a 10-0 record, and hope to move up next year in the Southern California Rugby Union rankings.

The union has 29 men's club teams, stretching from San Luis Obispo to San Diego, and east to Las Vegas and Tempe, Ariz., as well as teams for women and older players.

But Faamausili has a warning for anyone who might try the sport halfheartedly: "If you're scared, don't go play, because you're going to get hurt."

In a game a week earlier, one of his Islander teammates had to be carried to the sidelines, his left ankle freakishly bent at a 45-degree angle to his leg.

"We all know the risks," Hill said. "You could have a crippling injury at any time. We never talk about it. But serious injuries are rare."

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