Enduring Friendships: Bonds made on the rugby field
By ASA HESS-MATSUMOTO / Santa Rosa Correspondent
First the jersey comes on: a rich maroon color offset with slices of white. Then comes the warm-up in bounding strides and patient stretches. Coaches make small chat with players.
No matter where they go in life, the men of Santa Rosa’s Rugby Club will always have the game. It’s a passion that follows them at the end of every work week, into every sports bar and on to screens at home.
It’s recorded on their bodies in calloused blisters, faded scars and fresh bruises. While their jerseys may get stowed away after every game, their time together does not.
On a hot July afternoon, Robert Meeson, 26, pulls up to the team’s home field, For Pete’s Sake, right next to the Comstock Junior High School campus. A game has been scheduled, and as Meeson steps his 6’4” muscled frame out of the car, more than a few heads from the away team turn their attention to the club’s experienced flanker.
But Meeson isn’t here to play. He’s here to spectate.
The game is between the newly formed NorCal Bears, a local team from another league that has several of the club’s players on its roster, and the Utah Avalanche. It’s the Bears’ first game as a team and Meeson wouldn’t miss it.
“They are a bunch of my friends,” Meeson said. “A bunch of the players that are on the team now were fellas I played with back in high school. Once rugby’s in your blood you’re stuck with it.”
For many of the club’s members, the bonds made on the field extend long after practices are over. They encompass barbecues, Giants baseball games and post-practice pitchers. They cover road trips, river runs and birthdays.
“I think it’s a testament to the camaraderie we’ve built on the field,” Meeson said. “We’ve been competing and putting out this great effort, and we all have this shared common interest and passion in rugby. It’s easy to recognize that in one another, so why wouldn’t we want to hang out with each other?”
Founded in 1971, the Santa Rosa Rugby Club competes as a Division II union team in USA Rugby competitions. With back-to-back national championship victories in 1993 and 1994, the team has consistently found itself in the national spotlight, ranking third in the nation at the end of this last season.
Despite the team’s prowess on the field, most of those who play have no professional experience. Some, such as Meeson, work in construction. Others are students at Sonoma State or SRJC. Two work as bouncers at clubs downtown.
“They’re into it because they are keen to play,” said club coach Rick Humm, 61. “It’s a challenge balancing the commitment to their jobs and their commitment to the game sometimes.”
Not everyone who joins the team is familiar with the sport. Josh Hensch, 34, joined the club in December 2011 because he missed team sports. But despite not knowing how to play, he said someone was always helping clue him into drills, rules and strategy.
“A single 20-year-old SRJC student and a married 34-year-old with a full time job are in way different places,” said club lock Josh Hensch, 34. “It’s a big group of guys, each with their own personalities and life situations, so there is a lot of variation in relationships. (But) from the first minute, guys were introducing themselves and welcoming me.”
For club member Meeson, the bonds made on the field extend far beyond the two try posts. They encompass barbecues, Giants games and post-practice pitchers. They cover road trips, weddings and birthdays. “That’s what the sport can do,” Meeson said.
For him, rugby doesn’t so much define his life as enrich it: his two brothers play rugby, the post-game BBQ is being hosted by his teammate, and he’s going to the wedding of a rugby player he played with in college. In this way, he views the sport as linking people together.
“Any rugby player you talk to will tell you it’s something of a mission in convincing people that it’s the greatest sport on Earth,” Meeson said. “And they aren’t wrong.”