After a six-year absence, prep rugby returns to Davis

By From page B1 | November 14, 2012

Clockwise from left are rugby coach Steve Gray; former Blue Devil footballer and Cal rugby standout Tanner Mohr; UCD athletic legend and two-time Olympic rugby gold medalist Colby "Babe" Slater; and former DHS football player and national rugby star Thretton Palamo. Courtesy photos

Davis — a community well-known for a million other reasons — has, sitting in its athletic attic, a storied history in rugby.

Names like Palamo, Mohr and Slater have been etched on league, national and Olympic championship medals over the years.

Thretton Palamo — the youngest World Cup rugby player ever when he led his Samoan countrymen four years ago — is, like Cal’s Tanner Mohr, a former Blue Devil.

Colby “Babe” Slater, a pre-World War I University Farm (now UC Davis) graduate, captained the United States to Olympic rugby gold medals in 1920 and 1924.

Until 2006, rugby was an emerging club sport at Davis High School. More than 40 players made up two teams, and the coaching staff included sport giants like Steve Gray and Mike Purcell — Aggie mentors who had played on a USA Rugby national title-winning team.

But things waned. Coaches scattered and players found other pursuits. The once-popular sport evaporated in town.

Gray has returned. Coaches from a variety of Blue Devil teams are sending players to the winter program and Gray says “I believe we can have one of the premiere (high school) programs in the country, if we can just get the numbers.”

Come Thursday, Gray and assistants Andy Malpass, Purcell and Rick Flynn — all former UCD coaches — will host an informational meeting at DHS for players and parents.

“Our coaching (for this Davis club) rivals most collegiate coaching staffs,” Gray adds. “And Davis kids like contact and they’re really smart. It helps to be smart playing rugby.”

While rugby is an all-weather sport that includes tackles without pads and asks its players to run pell-mell straight at each other, it trails football and basketball in the number (and severity) of injuries, according to several national studies.

Gray says the region is steeped in rugby-playing talent.

“Last year Dixon, with a couple of Davis players, won the national championship,” the former UCLA standout and coach reports. “Northern California high school rugby is the best in the nation.”

While professional and collegiate rugby often is portrayed as a team full of toothless goliaths bashing one another in muddy trenches, Gray says the sports is for participants of all shapes and sizes and requires quick moves, intelligent decisions and speed to the outside.

“There’s a role for everybody. Some guys are big and heavy and useful for certain things; some are tall and skinny. And you can be short and slow and still have fun with it.”

Basketball players, wrestlers and soccer players make good ruggers, Gray adds. Of course, football players are naturals.

Take Mohr, for example …

The 2008 DHS graduate was an all-league Blue Devil football player who gravitated to Cal rugby and played for Gray’s former national teammate Jack Clark. This year, Mohr has gone back to football with the Golden Bears and hasn’t missed a step fitting in as a fullback.

“Rugby tackling is so good,” Gray told The Enterprise. “Watch college and pro football — the tackling often isn’t that good. (Rugby) will teach tackling, for sure.”

That is music to the ears of Devil football coach Steve Smyte. In fact, the DHS Football Backers sent out a note to all the school’s players and their families, giving them an encouraging heads up about Gray’s organizational meeting.

With no affiliation to Davis High, the local rugby club will cost participants $200 to $300, according to organizers.

The season begins with practice next month, games beginning in January and a couple of tournaments later in the schedule. The campaign runs through April. Community Park is the anticipated site for practices and games.

“We don’t cut anybody … everybody gets to play,” Gray explains. “And we will never turn away anyone based on cost. We don’t want anyone not to come (Thursday) because they can’t afford to play.”

The Davis club will provide scholarships.

“I’m excited,” the 64-year-old rugby veteran adds. “Very excited.”

— Reach Bruce Gallaudet at [email protected] or 530-747-8047.

Bruce Gallaudet

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