Battling in a hard-hitting game on the field, the combatants share a meal and camaraderie after the competition is over.
Rugby might not be the best known sport in this area but a group of players are gathering for regular contests and aiming to bring a title to the region.
Members of the San Joaquin-Stanislaus Harlots team, which plays its home games at Northgate Park in Manteca, features players from throughout the Central Valley, including Escalon High alums Brian Lynn and Josh Vandagriff. Lynn now lives in Oakdale.
Known a few years ago as the Modesto Harlots, the team changed its name after moving from town to town to practice and now includes members from Escalon, Oakdale, Riverbank, Modesto, Lathrup, Tracy, Los Banos, Stockton and Sonora.
In a recent match, they demolished the visiting Shasta Highlanders 63-0 and will take the field for their home finale on Saturday, March 10 hosting the SF Fog.
Game time is 1 p.m. and the game is free; the public is invited to come see the team in action. Northgate Park is at 1750 Hoyt Lane in Manteca. A social gathering will follow the game, open to all in attendance.
The team then heads out for two final league games, both on the road, March 17 and 24, before starting playoffs.
“This is my first full season involved with this club. Unfortunately, I am only able to help from the sidelines because I had a shoulder procedure done at the beginning of the season which has not fully healed yet,” Vandagriff said. “While at MJC, I had a classmate who played for the Harlots and he did a speech about rugby. That is when I found out about the Harlots and started to go to their practices.”
Teammate Lynn, who was best friends with Vandagriff’s older brother in high school, also used to practice with Vandagriff, having him catch his passes and kicks. Lynn later spent a year in Australia to play the game.
Lynn’s father, Terry Lynn – from Escalon – previously served as the head rugby coach at University of the Pacific and was among a handful of players that formed the local team many years ago. He was in attendance at the game, enjoying it with a few of the ‘originals’ from the team of long ago.
“Our first real season was 1974, we had seven ballplayers that played in college that brought it back to Modesto,” Terry Lynn explained. “We were called the Bulls then; one of the sponsors was the Mapes Ranch. It morphed over the years, we have gone to tournaments and done really well, we usually have six or seven from the original team showing up to watch them play.”
“Rugby is different than any sport I ever played. It is an 80 minute, two 40-minute halves of hard hitting, fast paced sport,” Vandagriff added. “Once the 80 minutes are over, the host team provides a meal for the visiting team they just faced. Both teams socialize and have a good time even though they just finished playing each other for the last 80 minutes.”
The Harlots play in a competitive league, Division III in Northern California.
“I started to play competitive rugby when I transferred to Fresno State in August 2015,” Vandagriff said. “Rugby is the first contact sport I have ever done in my life. I was at Fresno State for two years and played rugby each of those years.”
For Lynn, who anchored the defensive backfield for the Harlots in their game against the Highlanders but also broke free for some scoring runs, his participation in the game grew out of disappointment in another competitive arena.
“I didn’t make the Delta baseball team,” Lynn said of his college days. “That same day I called my dad, he took me out to a practice.”
From there, he developed a true passion for the game, one that took him to Australia, where he lived and worked for a year, playing for Newcastle, a well-known team there.
“I pretty much used rugby as my in,” he explained. “The team set me up with a few jobs, I roomed with a rugby player.”
To the casual observer, the game can be a little confusing – the scoring is a bit different, it’s challenging to figure out where the ball might go next – but the team concept is definitely a major factor.
The team has also met with plenty of success over the years, including seven-time champions in Northern California Division III, tow-time Pacific Coast DIII champions and a Division III National runner-up honor in 2001.
Player positions are typically designated by the number on the jersey, with 15 players a side in league play. The Rugby World Cup will feature seven-on-seven competition, and is scheduled to be played at AT&T Park in San Francisco in July.
For more information on the local team, visit their Facebook page at Harlot Rugby Club.