Homegrown rugby players pitching in for San Diego Legion
“Football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen” – Anonymous
Drew Gaffney first heard the quote from a coach while he was playing club rugby in high school, and as someone who competed in both sports, it made him smile.
You could say it hit close to home.
Over his four years at Cathedral Catholic High School, Gaffney had decided to love one sport and tolerate the other.
“I had grown up playing offensive and defensive line,” Gaffney said. “Then someone showed me rugby, and it was, like, ‘I get to run with the ball! This is my dream!’
“And I did enjoy being physical; having an older brother who used to beat up on me gave me a lot of bumps and bruises.”
Gaffney came up in football and baseball in the enormous shadow of his older brother, Tyler Gaffney, an extraordinary athlete who was a member of two New England Patriots teams that won Super Bowls, and now, at 27, is playing minor-league baseball in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
If ever a kid brother needed to find a sport he could call his own, it was Drew Gaffney, and he embraced rugby.
Gaffney became a star for the San Diego Mustangs club team, and that led to playing for one of the premier college squads in the country at Cal.
Now comes an opportunity he couldn’t see coming: Gaffney is among the key contributors for the San Diego Legion, the professional team that is playing in the inaugural season of Major League Rugby.
Coming off a season-opening loss at Seattle, in which Gaffney scored his first try, the Legion will play their first home game at 4 p.m. Sunday against Utah at USD’s Torero Stadium.
“Having the opportunity to play pro rugby in my hometown, it’s unbelievable,” Gaffney, 22, said. “I can’t express enough gratitude to the coaches of the Legion for bringing me on and the opportunity I’ve been given.”
Gaffney, whose family resides in Mira Mesa, is among a handful of local products on the Legion who came up through the ranks of club play. Included in that group is Valley Center’s Chris Turori, a 24-year-old Cal State San Marcos student who grew up mostly playing soccer, and took up rugby when he was 13.
His family’s history in the game goes back to his father’s love of the sport when he was growing up in New Zealand. The Turoris started the first club rugby squad in Valley Center and all four children — three boys and a girl — played.
Turori rose to play on a Southern California regional team and All-American high school squad. He’s competed at the senior level with OMBAC, locally, and trained with the USA Sevens.
“It’s pretty amazing. When I first started playing rugby, there were only a couple of clubs around,” Turori said. “And now there are clubs in pretty much every city (in San Diego). I’ve watched it just explode.
“It’s pretty special to go back to the clubs I help coach and show the kids there’s an opportunity now to get a college scholarship, to play professionally. It’s been an awesome thing to see.”
Turori speaks of the camaraderie and team bonding in rugby.
“It’s like going to war,” he said. “You put your body on the line, and that alone is a tough one. You don’t have pads to protect you. There’s no blocking. It’s you versus them. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever played.”
Gaffney, who played tight end on Cathedral’s football team, felt the same way when he first tried rugby — though he had to get used to being gassed after 80 minutes of running up and down a field of more than 100 yards.
“I went out there with a football mentality — I’m going to hit people as hard as I can, and run as hard as I can,” Gaffney said with a laugh. “But after being coached on the club team, they helped me understand: You’re going to be a lot more technical with your contact. I wasn’t throwing my head in front of people anymore.
“Every now and then you’ll see big hits, but it’s more technically sound than football.”
Gaffney became so good that when the Under-19 Mustangs went to a national tournament, he was named the team’s “Man of the Match” for all three of their games. He honed his skills at a summer camp in England, and his breakthrough for college came during a Cal rugby summer camp before his senior year.
The Bears recruited him, and Gaffney landed on a national powerhouse. Cal won four consecutive national championships while he was there.
The most memorable victory of Gaffney’s career came at BYU in 2016, when the Bears scored a comeback victory in the Penn Mutual Varsity Cup Final over the Cougars, who were 22-0 heading into the match.
“It was a special moment,” Gaffney said. “To this day it gives me chills.”
Both Gaffney and Turori play as rugby’s version of linebackers. There are five of the meatiest players in the front line of the scrum, trailed by three large, but more nimble players who support them. Gaffney and Turori are those guys. Behind them are seven speedier athletes who are rugby’s receivers and running backs.
“We’re the bullies on the field,” Turori said.
The game can look like semi-organized mayhem, but Gaffney draws on the quote about “hooligans” when describing why he enjoys rugby so much.
“There’s that anger and hatred that you have towards someone in the game,” he said. “And then after the match you might be sitting down together with a slice of pizza and a Gatorade.”
Coming from football, he added, “That’s definitely a culture shock.”
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