DOWNTOWN — Continuing a tradition stretching as far back as 1905, the Santa Monica Rugby Club on Saturday hosted an exhibition match with the 7th Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
The passage of British rugby teams through the area continues this Saturday as the historic Blackheath Football Club will challenge Santa Monica at Daniel Webster Middle School at 2 p.m.
During the late spring and early summer, after the Southern California Rugby Union season and national playoff schedule ends, rugby teams from overseas will often tour the area to test their skills against local teams.
The tradition of rugby tours is an important overall part of the camaraderie associated with rugby culture. A rugby tour provides teams with the opportunity to cross the regional lines along which rugby is normally organized and enjoy competition with distant teams on the rugby pitch. Custom dictates that the host and visiting team should enjoy an after-match social together, a tradition of rugby that applies to any match but is even more significant and meaningful in conjunction with a tour match.
California has long been a destination of touring rugby teams: for example, the New Zealand national team “All-Blacks” made California a destination on their first tour outside Australasia in 1905, playing a pair of matches in the Bay Area.
The 7th Parachute Regiment, comprising part of the Royal Horse Artillery, made their way to Santa Monica as part of an R&R trip following their recent deployment in Afghanistan. Professionally, they serve their country as the only parachute light-gun regiment in the British Army, with the primary role of providing airborne artillery support.
In their first rugby match since departing for Afghanistan last year, the 7th Parachutes showed strong form against Santa Monica, but the Dolphins prevailed by a score of 27 to 14. Brian O’Shea led Santa Monica’s effort with four penalty goals, a drop goal, and a conversion.
“I thought we’d be lucky to get nil,” O’Shea said.
After the game, the teams adjourned to the Dolphins’ usual after-match location, O’Brien’s Irish Pub on Main Street, where they enjoyed a spirited social together: songs were sung, speeches and presentations were made, and mutual admiration was expressed, particularly toward the soldier-ruggers of the 7th for their sacrifice and dedication.
The 7th Parachute team continue their tour in San Diego this week, where they will enjoy a week of sightseeing as well as another match against Camp Pendleton’s Marine rugby team on June 8. Following the tour, the 7th Parachute Regiment will return to its home base in Colchester, England.
Next up for the Dolphins is Blackheath Football Club, which currently plays at the National Division One level in England and is one of the world’s most historic rugby clubs, having been founded in 1858. Hailing from southeast London, they have the distinction of being the oldest “open” rugby club in the world (open in this context meaning that membership was open to all, as opposed to being restricted to alumni of a particular school or employees of a certain organization, which was a requirement for membership in many other early rugby clubs).
International rugby as it is known today certainly owes a great deal to Blackheath: club members helped to organize the first international rugby match in 1871 between England and Scotland, in which England was captained by a Blackheath player in addition to having three more in its squad. Blackheath also hosted the first international match between England and Wales in 1881 on its home ground.
The fictional world of Sherlock Holmes even includes a reference to Blackheath Football Club. Holmes sidekick Dr. Watson is described as having played rugby for Blackheath in “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire.”
Previously, Blackheath visited Santa Monica Rugby Club in June, 1986. Robert Hacker, who currently serves as a club administrator and coach, was also a long-time player for SMRC and part of the squad that faced Blackheath on that occasion.
“The game was played on the polo fields at Will Rogers State Park in the Palisades,” Hacker said. “All of our initial reactions to seeing the field on game day was, ‘Why can’t we play here?!’ [The field had] beautifully manicured, soft grass in a spectacular setting … a proper venue for hosting any touring side, but especially for Blackheath.”
He also noted that one of the Blackheath players, Stuart Reeve, ended up staying in Santa Monica and playing for the Dolphins for a few years.
Santa Monica Rugby Club has been an active part of the Santa Monica community since its founding in 1972. Players of all ages and experience are welcomed to SMRC: in addition to fielding three levels of men’s teams and a women’s team, the club runs youth teams for boys and girls age 7 and up. In the club’s recent history, the men’s team was Division 1 National Champions in 2005 and 2006, and the boys’ under-12 team repeated as Southern California Rugby Union champions in 2011.