By Ken Stone and Chris StoneThe Chargers are long gone, and SoccerCity is iffy. But San Diegans who like to see beefy men in a bruising game have a new professional team to cheer.
A bonus: We get a Super Bowl of sorts.
The San Diego Legion rugby squad played its first home game — a preseason exhibition — Saturday night at the University of San Diego before a crowd of hundreds.
The Legion leaped to a 17-7 halftime lead at Torero Stadium, but went scoreless in the second half to fall 33-17 to the Houston SaberCats. (The new seven-team Major League Rugby circuit begins regular play April 21.)
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“It was a game of two halves,” San Diego flanker Mungo Mason told Rugby Today. “The first half we had some shape and executed really well. Obviously in the second half, we came out firing and maybe got a little complacent. Houston’s good ball carriers really took it out of us.”
Mason, a New Zealand native who formerly played with Chicago, said the Legion wasn’t prepared for the Houston channel runners and their latch.
Before the loss, Legion General Manager Matt Hawkins said San Diego had been training hard to prepare for its first season.
“We’re thrilled to be hosting the initial championships right here (July 7) in America’s Finest City,” he said, “so it’s only appropriate that we do all we can to be a part of the post-season games.”
The Legion, with Londoner Rob Hoadley as head coach, boasts 26 active players, including Olympians. Its San Diego debut followed a “curtain-raiser” game between San Diego State University’s rugby club and Cal Poly Pomona. (The Aztecs lost 29-22.)
The Legion is the latest incarnation of pro rugby in San Diego. The San Diego Breakers — with Hawkins as a coach — were one of five teams in the Professional Rugby Organization, known as PRO Rugby, which began play in April 2016 and folded by January 2017.
The league will be the “pinnacle” of American rugby, the team said, “and provide a rallying point for local communities, a focal point for American rugby fans, and an aspirational destination for young athletes.”
Spectator Maevetaaffe Nelson of Ireland, whose brothers played rugby, noted the Breakers, whose season two years ago was “quite successful.”
“Unfortunately, that league was not designed to succeed long term,” he said. “But this league looks like it has a much better chance to be a long-term successful venture.”
John Kyle of San Diego, who coaches rugby in a youth program, said he’s been a rugby fan and player for a long time and was happy to see some high-quality play.
“The sport is growing,” Kyle said before the game. “I know that at the youth level, it’s really blowing up right now. The quality of rugby in America has come leaps and bounds.”
Kyle called rugby the ultimate team sport.
“The culture of the game is like no other. Everybody has to tackle, everybody has to run and everybody has to pass, and carry. Everybody’s got to do their job,” he said. “It’s phenomenal for building character.”
Chris Finn of San Diego, another fan in the stands, said he grew up with the sport, which his brother played.
“The idea of having a professional team in your town is something that I have missed for quite a while,” Finn said. “It’s nonstop — it’s a fast-paced game, pretty physical.”
Chris Nelson of Encinitas, whose son is with the Legion, said he’s
very encouraged about the season.
“From a business perspective, this league is being set up correctly.” And he repeated a theme: “I like the fluid play of the game; it’s nonstop… every other game is stop and go, stop and go.”
League games will be shown on AT&T Sports Networks. And the May 4 Legion-SaberCats rematch will be the Game of the Week on CBS Sports Network.
Season ticket packages — four home games — start at $103. Single-game options are shown at sdlegion.com/tickets.
The Legion travels to play the Seattle Seawolves on April 22, followed by:
- Utah Warriors at San Diego Legion | April 29, 4 PM PST
- Houston SaberCats at San Diego Legion | May 4, 5:30 PM PST
- San Diego Legion at Glendale Raptors | May 13, 5 PM PST
- San Diego Legion at Austin Elite Rugby | May 26, 6 PM PST
- BYE – Week of June 3
- San Diego Legion at NOLA Gold | June 9, 1 PM PST
- Austin Elite Rugby at San Diego Legion | June 17, 5 PM PST
- And Glendale Raptors at San Diego Legion | June 23, 7 PM PST
Chelsy Clark of San Diego said she was super excited about a new rugby team in town.
But Melina Savarese of Little Italy, first-timer at a rugby game, had some questions: “Why are the shorts so short? Why do they wear the little hats?”
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