Rugby: The prop forwards from Santa Monica’s men’s rugby team, the Dolphins, brace themselves for a scrum. Santa Monica Rugby Club

In the second of our two-part series of features explaining the glorious game of rugby, we look at Santa Monica’s local team, the Dolphins plus some of the teams and players to watch in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

Four years ago, in the 2019 Rugby World Cup final hosted by Japan, England played one of the worst games in English rugby history, which was extremely annoying because just seven days earlier, they played probably the best game in the history of English rugby. Against all odds and equally the belief of every rugby fan everywhere, England beat New Zealand in the semi-final, pitting them against South Africa in the final.

Tragically, the England manager at the time, Eddie Jones, decided to play exactly the same strategy that had miraculously beaten the All Blacks, except the Springboks saw that coming from a mile away and they utterly annihilated England. So South Africa are the defending champions.

For the next seven weeks — and thankfully only at weekends — the very best teams in the world will compete against each other and given how the group structure has been decided this time around, things will really heat up in the first elimination phase, the quarter finals, as that’s where the much more evenly matched teams will face each other. This is where England could potentially face Australia and New Zealand could equally face South Africa.

Teams and players to watch

The French will look to dominate the tournament and they have a very good chance of actually doing that. Antoine Dupont, the French Scrum Half is among the best in the world and so is the French Winger Damian Penaud, who wears the number 14. Les Bleus have shown in the warm up test matches that they can play resourceful, intelligent rugby and it’s a joy to watch.

England at the moment are playing a very long way away from form. The manager, Steve Borthwick has not been able to make the team work as a unit, since he took over just nine months ago, which is a shame because England has some of the best individual talent in the world. Marcus Smith, the Fly-Half who wears number 10, is a prodigy and thankfully Borthwick has been forced to select the vastly underrated Alex Mitchell as a Scrum Half, replacing the vastly overrated Jack van Poortvliet.

Australia are also rebuilding and Eddie Jones has returned to the land Down Under after taking England to the final four years ago. He will be relying on veteran players like Quade Cooper and Michael Hooper to lead a team of relatively fresh faces. Tragically James O’Connor didn’t make the cut.

Italy are one of the most passionate rugby teams in the world and the sport is slowly growing in a very soccer-saturated country. The Azzurri as they’re called are a side that really should be better than they are, however, even in defeat the Italian’s applaud quality rugby skill. Scrum Half Stephen Varney is a vastly underrated player and will be key to their performance in this tournament.

Which brings us to the Kiwis. The legendary New Zealand are also rebuilding after long-time manager Steve Hansen left four years ago. Funnily enough, Hansen has joined arch rival team the Wallabies in an advisory role for this World Cup, much to the hilarious disgust of just about every All Black fan across the world. Discipline, or a lack thereof, has been a huge factor in New Zealand’s recent poor performances and like England, they have some spectacular individual talent, but it’s not quite coming together as it should.

The Irish have a solid team this year and like other Tier One teams, it’s mostly made up of oak trees, freight trains and Asgardian gods. The amount of collective experience on this team is among the highest and while Ireland frequently play a very physical game, it’s going to take more intelligent and innovative rugby from manager Andy Farrell if they’re going to pose a significant threat.

The South African Springboks are also looking very strong and they have to be a favorite to win. Captain Siya Kolisi (Open Side Flanker, or number six) is the kind of legendary player that can inspire a team as he’s shown repeatedly in the past. The ‘Boks possess both a strong and powerful set of forwards and a very quick set of backs, but as the French showed in their recent annihilation of Australia in one of the last warm up “test” matches, it will take more than an ability with the game’s fundamentals, it’s going to take out-of-the-box thinking to successfully defend their title as current world champions.

And then there’s the rest. Wales are underperforming, sadly, as are Scotland, but Argentina is looking strong and will probably beat England in their first and hardest group match. Another team to keep an eye on is the Japanese as they’re known to cause an upset or two. Both Fuji and Samoa have players so mindboggingly huge, that they’re wingers look like most other team’s front rows. Imagine 15 Dwayne Johnson’s playing — that’s what they look like, but despite their obvious physical strength, both sides have lacked creative game play in the past and that has let them down.

Santa Monica’s rugby history

Perhaps it’s Santa Monica’s ties to Europe — and let’s face facts, it is home to the biggest British community in Los Angeles – or perhaps the folk of our fair city just have good taste in sports, but there has been a local rugby team here for 50 years, the Dolphins.

Currently, the Santa Monica Rugby Club has about 220 active players – approximately 100 adult and 120 youths — across two senior men’s teams and two senior women’s teams, plus age-grade rugby ranging from under-8 non-contact for girls and boys to under-16 and under-18. In Southern California, the main season runs from December through May as due to the fall heat, there is no real fall season.

“For Americans, rugby in the US and in Santa Monica is the great ‘alternative’ sport, attracting serious athletes from other sports, like football, soccer, but also wrestling and water polo, for example, looking for new challenges, as well as rugged individuals who never really found their ‘thing’ but enjoy the camaraderie and spirit of the game,” says Steven Johnson, President of the Santa Monica Rugby Club.

“For example, I never played gridiron football after 8th grade because I didn’t like the culture, but found rugby in college where I loved the hits and the free-wheeling style of play.”

The Santa Monica Rugby Club (SMRC) was founded in 1972 by rugby playing graduates of USC, UCLA and St. Mary’s College. The club was fairly dominant in the ‘70s, winning several de facto national championships and fielding about half of what would become the first US national team, the afore-mentioned Eagles.

The Dolphins play in the Southern California Rugby Football Union, which is arguably the best overall amateur rugby union in the country and includes clubs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego and out to Beaumont and Riverside in SoCal. Historically, teams like SMRC, Belmont Shore of Long Beach, Old Mission Beach Athletic Club of San Diego have consistently all been at top of the national competition.

SMRC was also among the first rugby clubs in the US to have a women’s team, outside of college teams and since 2005, has consistently been in the top two or three teams in Southern California ever since.

“We’re quite often contacted by casting agents for commercials to provide players. I myself have been in a beer commercial, a contact lens commercial and a bank commercial,” laughs Johnson. “We’ve had other women and men who have been in commercials for Outback Steakhouse, HairClub for Men and yes, we were the rugby club with players featured in the episode of Friends where Ross joins a rugby team to impress his English girlfriend.”

France v New Zealand kicks off at 12 noon on Friday, September 8. And the next day, Saturday 9, there are four matches on: Australia v Georgia, Ireland v Romania, Italy v Namibia and perhaps the biggest confrontation, England v Argentina.

Then on Sunday, September 10, Japan v Chile, the mighty South Africa take on underdogs Scotland while Wales will challenge the physical Fiji. See you all in either Ye Old King’s Head, O’Briens or Sonny McLean’s.

Scott fell in love with Santa Monica when he was much younger and now, after living and working in five different countries, he has returned. He's written for the likes of the FT, NBC, the BBC and CNN.