The roads to professional rugby run through the basketball courts of Middle America, a bloody gunshot attack in Santa Rosa, the Cal football program and a town about 25 miles inland from the Adriatic coast of Italy.
They will meet Sunday at an intersection known as Bonney Field, in an American pro version of the ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.
Whether they play it for fun or money, what guides the game is the passion of the people who play it. Their love of rugby becomes a lifestyle, a reason to party. It is a cultural phenomenon. Many were born into it. Those who weren’t soon make it their own. Now, in this country, they can get paid to play in the five-team Professional Rugby Organization, and they sure are happy about that.
“The league itself, I personally believe this has been a long time coming,” said Luke Gross, coach of Sacramento, which doesn’t have a team name but will play Ohio on Sunday at 5 p.m. “Next year, we’re expanding to 10 teams, is what I’m understanding, which is brilliant, and which will vastly increase the competition.”
Gross played in 62 matches for the U.S. national team and professionally in London, Rome, Veneto, South Yorkshire and elsewhere. Gross discovered rugby at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., where he played basketball. As a junior in 1991-92, Gross put the thunder in the Thundering Herd when he committed 111 fouls in 29 games, still a school record.
“I was a banger,” Gross said. “The fouling paid off, I suppose.”
One of Gross’ players, Josh Inong, likes to bang, too. He plays the hooker position, at the apex of the scrum where two piles of shoving human mass reset the action during a game. Once the ball is rolled into the pit, it is Inong’s job to scrunch it out by foot to his awaiting scrum half, who zings the ball to the outside.
“Who’s bigger, who’s stronger, who wants it more,” Inong said. “Sweaty, messy, loud. You can get punched, a finger in your eye, your ear gouged. You might get a little bit of trash talking. It’s a brutal mess inside. No one gets to see it.”
The league itself, I personally believe this has been a long time coming. Next year, we’re expanding to 10 teams, is what I’m understanding, which is brilliant, and which will vastly increase the competition.
Luke Gross, Sacramento coach in the Professional Rugby Organization
Nasty as it can be in the scrum, Inong, 28, has seen worse. The night of his high school graduation, he got shot six times. One bullet struck an artery in his leg and he was as good as dead until his father applied a tourniquet to save his life. Six months later, he got out of his wheelchair, and after two more months on crutches, he was back in the scrum.
“It changed me,” Inong said of his near-death experience.
He took an interest in his education and wound up at Sacramento State. He also dedicated himself to rugby. He’d been into it since he was in the seventh grade when he and his family followed his older sister to her games. After the shooting, it became the center of his life.
“One of the biggest things I’ve noticed growing up in the sport is that the passion for the game goes back to the dinner table,” Inong said. “It goes back to the household. It doesn’t just sit there on the field.”
Sione Sina knows about that, too, but it took him awhile to first work through some of the other activities, including football. Sina went to Monterey Trail High School in Elk Grove and College of San Mateo before he got a scholarship to Cal. He switched to rugby last spring.
As a Polynesian, Sina said rugby “is always revolving around our culture.” He played a little as a teenager, but gave it up to pursue tackling people in pads – similar to rugby-like collisions, Sina said, only more dangerous, due to the false feeling of protection lent by the equipment.
“Football can be a little more dangerous, with all the pads,” Sina said. “From personal experience, I get a little more reckless when I have the pads. That’s when you get the injuries and concussions and all that stuff.”
Who’s bigger, who’s stronger, who wants it more. Sweaty, messy, loud. You can get punched, a finger in your eye, your ear gouged. You might get a little bit of trash talking. It’s a brutal mess inside. No one gets to see it.
Sina, a defensive end in college, plays the lock position in the scrum. He’ll push the pile, but every once in awhile he gets the ball on short-yardage crashes into the line, and you know that at 6-foot-4 and 270 pounds he is no fun to bring down. Sina hopes to keep crashing as long as he can. Like many rugby players, he looks up to Dan Carter of New Zealand’s All Blacks, who also has a three-year, $6 million contract with the French team Racing 92. Mothers of America, there is nothing wrong with raising your babies to play fly-half.
Mirco Bergamasco, at center, is among the more accomplished players for Sacramento. The Italian from Padua has played on top pro teams in Italy and France and for his national team. He will be playing in Sacramento as if he has something to prove.
“In Europe, they think I have finished my career,” Bergamasco, 33, said. “I am not finished. I want to play, so it was a political problem.”
Bergamasco will find politics can be unpleasant in America, too, where the scrums for the next six months are bound to be brutal. Those who can’t bear to watch now have another sport to distract them.
PRO at a glance
- What: Professional Rugby Organization
- Who: Five teams (Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver, Obetz, Ohio) play 12 matches over 16-week season
- When: Saturdays and Sundays
- Next Sacramento match: Sunday vs. Ohio, 5 p.m., Bonney Field