Major League Rugby premieres in San Diego

Sione Tu'ihalamaka of the SD Legion rugby team.

Sione Tu’ihalamaka of the SD Legion rugby team.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

There was a time during the late 1800s when the sport of rugby, not football, nearly became America’s favorite full-contact sport.

For a string of reasons, the games diverged and rugby was pushed to the margins of the nation’s sporting consciousness. But, a new local organization is hoping to change that.

The San Diego Legion, of the newly formed seven-team Major League Rugby (the others being Seattle, Houston, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, Austin, Texas, and Glendale, Colo.), is ready to take to the pitch and win over fans and rugby newbies with a physical, fast-paced, high-scoring brand of sport.

After officially opening the inaugural MLR season in Seattle on April 22, the Legion will play host to the Utah Warriors at 4 p.m. on Sunday at the team’s home field at University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

“One thing I know: there’s a good amount of people in San Diego who enjoy being out in the sunshine, maybe enjoying a couple of beers and having a good time and this is something that I know folks are going to love,” said Legion player Ryan Matyas. “It’s a fast, high-action contact sport and even if you don’t know a lot about the game, I guarantee you are going to have a blast.”

New to the pitch? Here’s a quick primer on what to look for during the game that’s best described as “football without helmets”:

The essentials

The game is made up of two, 40-minute halves and pits 15 players on each side against one another. Unlike football, each player can run, lateral (passing, but never in a forward movement), kick and tackle.

The field is roughly 10 yards wider than a football field and the goal posts are on the goal line. The ball is oval shaped and looks like a giant-sized football only fatter in the middle.

Play is continuous and the referees stop the clock only for substitutions, penalties and injuries.

A team can earn points by advancing the ball across the opponent’s goal line and forcing the ball down onto the ground for a “try.” These are worth five points.

After a successful try a team can get two points for a “conversion” kick. Also, a penalty kick is worth three points and a drop kick is worth three points.

Though relatively unknown to many casual sports fans, rugby has long enjoyed a strong following in the San Diego community.

The Old Mission Beach Athletic Club has fielded excellent amateur teams for decades, several local colleges have club teams and there is an Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista where many athletes train.

The Legion roster features one San Diego native, Gil Covey, and the club hopes to establish a strong professional presence while helping grow the game at the youth level.

Gil Covey, a San Diego native, is one of the players on the inaugural SD Legion rugby team.

Gil Covey, a San Diego native, is one of the players on the inaugural SD Legion rugby team.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The Legion will play a total of eight regular season games (four home, four away) and the top four teams will qualify for a semifinal playoff. The first MLR championship game is set for July 7 here in San Diego at Torero Stadium.

“The idea is to start small and grow intelligently,” Matyas said. “This league has a stronger backing than ones we have seen in the past and communities like San Diego are places are where the sport can really thrive and continue to grow. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

Ticket prices are $23 for General Admission, $31 for Choice and $33.50 for VIP, which will include passes to a beer garden featuring local craft beers.

More information can be found on the club’s website:

Rugby talk

The language of rugby is unlike any other sport. Here are some key terms to know before heading out to a game.

Lineout: Restarts play after the ball goes out over the touchline (sideline boundary). The team that didn’t touch the ball last has a throw-in. In terms of visual cues, this is executed along the touchline where both teams line up side by side and, while one person throws the ball into play, a player in the lineup is lifted by teammates to try and grab the ball.

Ryan Matyas (top), Sione Tu'ihalamaka (bottom right) and Devin Short of the SD Legion rugby team demonstrate a lineout.

Ryan Matyas (top), Sione Tu’ihalamaka (bottom right) and Devin Short of the SD Legion rugby team demonstrate a lineout.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Knock on: The accidental hitting of the ball from the hands or arms toward the dead ball line (out of bounds area beyond the goal line). Results in the same scenario as a forward pass — a scrum to the nonoffending team.

Ruck: A ball-winning activity following a tackle and release; a ruck is formed if a player from both teams is in physical contact over the ball.

Scrum: Perhaps the most visually interesting component of rugby. This is a way to restart play, such as after a knock on, where a group of players bind together to form a tunnel with the opposition.

San Diego Legion schedule

(Home games at Torero Stadium)

4.29 vs. Utah, 4 p.m.

5.4 vs. Houston, 5:30 p.m.

5.13 at Glendale, Colo., 5 p.m.

5.25 at Austin, Texas, 6 p.m.

6.9 at New Orleans, 1 p.m.

6.17 vs. Austin, Texas, 5 p.m.

6.23 vs. Glendale, Colo., 7:30 p.m.