Dolphins: The local teams are always looking for players. Courtesy photo

Rugby can be a little difficult to describe to an American audience. Is it like soccer, but you can use your hands? Is it like football, but with no pads… and you can occasionally use your feet… and the clock doesn’t stop…

Simply put, rugby is a sport all its own, and for the past 50 years it has been played competitively here in Santa Monica, thanks to the Santa Monica Rugby Club. Founded by former collegiate ruggers in 1972, the club now has kids leagues, a women’s team and several men’s teams for players of all ability levels.

On Saturday afternoon, the men’s first team — the most competitive level of play on the men’s side — will host Eagle Rock Rugby for the SoCal Playoffs on home turf at Samohi. If they win, the team will then head to CSU Long Beach for the SoCal Finals, before playing for the California Cup in San Luis Obispo. After that, they could be taking on regional teams with the possibility of advancing to the national championship game.

“We’re pretty good,” Santa Monica Rugby Club President Steven Johnson said. “I think we can make it a few more layers.” In regular season play, the men’s first team went 6-3 in its 50th anniversary season.

A championship would add to an impressive lineage for the club, nicknamed the Santa Monica Dolphins, which earned national championships in the 70s and again in the early 2000s, when Johnson, now 51, was playing on the first team. 

On the women’s side, the team just closed out a successful (5-2) regular season and will soon head to CSU Long Beach on April 23, along with the men, to compete at the SoCal Finals.

“The great thing about rugby is that it’s a pretty tight-knit community,” Women’s Team President Anna Kobara said. “There are quite a bit of women’s clubs that are sprinkled across the country, and the community is very close, so you can easily find a women’s club in most cities in the US.”

Santa Monica’s women’s club is especially competitive, Johnson said, with about 40 players. Kobara said that, down the line, the women were hoping to branch out into a first team and a second team.

“I think in the next few years, we would love to have enough players to have two sides,” Kobara said. “One side for players that are looking for a high level of competitive play, and then the second side is if there are players who are looking for more of a social game — that would be the ideal goal for the next few years.”

The teams are “always recruiting,” both Johnson and Kobara shared, and pretty much anyone can join. 

“Everybody is always welcome at any level: completely new, or, you know, the best player ever,” Johnson said. Some members are longtime Santa Monicans, but many are international players who got a work transfer to LA and found a rugby team to join, or sought out the team for an opportunity to compete in athletics after college. “We’re always open to new members,” Johnson added.

Rugby also has a reputation for inclusivity. 

“One of the most beautiful things about rugby is that it is very inclusive in terms of body type; no matter what body type you have, there’s a place for you on the field,” Kobara said. “It’s a great sport in that way.”

On the women’s side, ages range from 17 to about 40; for the men, there are guys competing all the way up to the “old boys rugby” ages of 55 and up.

Because rugby is a relatively new sport to America — Los Angeles just got its first professional team, the Giltinis, in 2021 — even pro players can be in their early to mid 30s, many of whom didn’t take up the sport until after college. 

Johnson said the Dolphins’ biggest hurdle has been, and continues to be, finding a reliable field to play. 

“We don’t have a home club, or a home clubhouse or a home field,” Johnson said. “Whereas in some parts of the country, and most of the rest of the world, when you go to see a rugby game, you go to their rugby clubhouse, you go sit in their grandstands, and stuff like that.” 

Instead, the Santa Monica Rugby Club sometimes plays at Samohi, sometimes at John Adams Middle School. That makes it difficult to attract spectators, as well.

“We could build an audience — we could build a fan base — except that I couldn’t tell you where we’re going to be playing the next weekend,” Johnson said. 

One thing is for sure: The Santa Monica Rugby Club’s men’s first team will be playing at Samohi on Saturday, April 16, at 1 p.m. Rugby games consist of two 40-minute halves. Anyone is welcome to come and enjoy the game, but dogs, smoking and alcoholic beverages are not allowed, as the match will be played on school grounds. It is free to attend.

“It’s such a fast-paced and full-contact sport,” Kobara said. “It’s a joy to watch and we have a lot of friends and family that come out to watch our games.”

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