Nice guys finish fast

Welcome to the rough but congenial world of rugby

Zephyrs coach Maka Pateta, has helped them go undefeated this season.

Zephyrs coach Maka Pateta, has helped them go undefeated this season.

Photo By David Robert

Home game. Reno Zephyrs vs. Redding, Calif. A minivan carries a player from the visiting team off the field to St. Mary’s Hospital. Looks like a sprained ankle. Zephyrs fullback Greg Walker gets knocked down, lies curled on his back in pain for a couple minutes, crawls off the field and says, “Ow.” Part-time Zephyr Phil Ulibarri ends the game with a golf-ball-sized abrasion on his knee, caked with grass and dripping with blood.

“That was a friendly game,” says Zephyrs forward Rudy Rivera after the match. “No real injuries.”

He’s one of just a few players wearing any gear more protective than shorts and cleats. But that’s not because he measures in at 5-feet-4-inches and some of his teammates outweigh him by 100 pounds. His modest stature is easily overshadowed by his don’t-fuck-with-me-in-a-dark-alley physique, and anyway, in rugby, being rock-solid is the key attribute. Rivera sports a thin, lycra scrum cap to prevent one of those “real” injuries during a scrum. That’s the play used to restart the game after an infringement. Eight players from each team form something of a moving huddle, heads interlocked with their opponents, vying for the ball with their feet. From far away, it looks like a woozy, three-ton, 32-legged spider hulking from side to side until it collapses and scatters. From close up, it looks like a group wrestling match.

“You can tear an ear off in a scrum,” says Rivera. “It’s happened before.”

You can also separate a shoulder or break an arm, a nose or a finger. Ulibarri, a development officer for the Washoe County Health Department, can tell you about any of those injuries first-hand. He’s had them all.

To rugby players, the excitement and camaraderie that define rugby culture outweigh the risks.

“It’s exciting,” says Rivera. “It’s not like football, where play stops. It’s a running clock. It just keeps going. It’s the physicality of it, the tackling. The ball’s always moving.”

What converted Ulibarri to the sport was its inclusive nature, both on the field and off.

“I was a frustrated football player,” he says. He’s a big guy, who often ended up playing defensive tackle. “You never got to run the ball in that position. Everybody gets to handle the ball in a rugby game.”

Two teams wrestle control of the ball from each other, carrying it with hands, kicking it with feet, passing it backward (never forward) and tackling the hell out of each other to try to get past the opposing team’s defenses for a solid 80 minutes.

Then, the clock stops. The players all shake hands, pack up their gear and, if it’s a home game, they head to Alturas Bar & Nightclub, families and fans in tow, for an afternoon party, where they are as congenial and hospitable off the field as they were aggressive and competitive on the field.

“There’s a lot of camaraderie. You take pride in the fact that you’ve survived the game,” says Ulibarri. “It’s an unwritten rule that you reciprocate your games [with] parties afterward. A rugby team has to think about how they’re going to entertain other teams. We have our own barbecue that can roast a whole pig.”

The Zephyrs have been around since 1979, when Ulibarri and a few other players got tired of commuting to Truckee to play for the Tahoe team and started a local group.

UNR’s Rugby team in 1903, above, played during the sport’s heyday. The Reno Zephyrs are now part of its resurgence.

“We found a lot of our players in the hospitality industry,” he says. “About that time, we started having an influx of Islander population in the landscaping and garden care industry.” (Rugby is the national sport of Fiji, Samoa and Tonga.) “We had some guys from New Zealand and Australia, some who had played on the East Coast, in New York and Philly.

“Players from other countries had been playing since they could walk,” says Ulibarri, who, as a rookie, played on the same team as guys with 20 or 30 years of experience.

That mix of experience levels still persists on the Zephyrs, which attracts seasoned players—many from UNR’s rugby team—as well as newbies.

“That’s one of the shortcomings in American rugby right now. You need to bring more players up to speed,” says Ulibarri.

The sport enjoyed a heyday in the United States—including Reno—about a century ago. UNR’s rugby team was first registered in 1898. In 1920, the U.S. rugby team won the Olympic gold medal against France. Over the next few decades, as rugby maintained its grip on athletes and fans worldwide, it was overshadowed in the United States by a surging interest in football.

Rugby has enjoyed a renaissance in other parts of the country, but Reno players and fans are still working to help the sport gain more local clout. In many cities, established rugby teams have their own facilities. The Zephyrs play at Governors Bowl Park, a scruffy, nondescript field tucked behind Fourth Street’s Twin City Surplus and nestled against Interstate 80. They pay to use the lights for weekday-night practices with member dues. Sponsors pitch in to help with other costs. Alturas hosts the after-game parties. Rivera’s concrete-floor sealing business, Epoxy Concepts, kicks in for the team’s uniforms. Rugbybug, an online rugby gear retailer run by UNR’s head rugby coach Dan Anderson, donates equipment once in a while. The players travel to away games on their own dime.

The team is undefeated this season. “We are looking to go up to the first division,” says coach Maka Pateta, an imposing-looking Polynesian with a buzz cut and a friendly voice. “The highest we ever had was the second division in ’99 and 2000.” The Zephyrs would qualify for Division II status if they could send 30 players to each away game.

“It’s not so hard getting 30 guys for home games,” says Ulibarri. The team has 31 players at the moment. But they can’t always travel.

“People have to sacrifice to find their time,” says Pateta. “They have families and jobs.”

The Zephyrs have been holding fundraisers, such as a recent luau, in the hope of rousing more local support and a higher profile.

“People [here] just don’t know about rugby,” says Rivera, who joined the team just last year after meeting some Zephyrs at the gym. “It’s just not a sport that they play.”

“As the game catches on, and people see how neat it is, that will change,” Ulibarri predicts. “It’s getting more coverage on television.”

Meanwhile, at Governor’s Bowl Park, the dry winter grass is dotted with fans in camp chairs, young men in baggy jeans drinking beer, a couple babies, and some teenagers passing a ball back and forth on the sideline. There are only about 25 spectators, but collectively, they exude enough team spirit to put some serious cheer in the air.

The Zephyrs aren’t deterred by the size of their audience. The Division III quarterfinals are coming up in Oregon, the playoffs will be in South Carolina, and the championships in San Diego. They’re hoping to make all three.