Tackling challenges on the way to a national championship

UC Santa Cruz’s men’s rugby team looks forward to a promising 50th season

A 2017 rugby match on the Lower East Field

The Slugs attempt a try in a February, 2017 match against Chico State on UC Santa Cruz's East Field. (Photo courtesy of UC Santa Cruz men's rugby)

Player Ed Kim resists a tackle.
Player Ed Kim resists a tackle by Chico State. (Photo courtesy of UC Santa Cruz men's rugby)
David Dorfan supervises scrum practice
Illuminated by new portable field lights, Banana Slugs practice scrum under the tutelage of "emeritus" coach David Dorfan. (Photo by J.D. Hillard)
Monday, Wednesday, and Friday nights, UC Santa Cruz’s East Field rumbles with 40 or 50 pairs of running, cleated feet and echoes with the thuds of shoulders colliding with foam practice targets. The men’s rugby team is practicing the skills they hope will carry them to a national championship.

“In our 50th year, I want to dominate the game,” Head Coach Robbie Bellue says.
“Last year we had a goal to beat Stanford, and we did it in strong fashion. This year we have a good chance of winning the conference.”

It has been years since the Banana Slugs were this optimistic, but they have their reasons. New portable field lights enable more hours of practice in the evenings.
Work with an expert coach is improving training, and they’ve begun a fundraiser they hope will ensure ongoing wins.

Reclaiming a winning record

Last season, after they won against Stanford—their perennial rival—the Slugs reached the playoffs in the eight-school, Division 1 AA Pacific West Rugby Conference. They finished the season in third place.

David Dorfan, who with fellow coach Ron Ruby founded the team in 1967, says this year looks more promising.

“We can match everyone in D1AA, I’m pretty sure,” says Dorfan, who is still involved as a sort of honorary coach. “The lights and the longer practice will make a difference.”

Players introduce Dorfan as a “coach emeritus.” He was with the squad when they were one of the West Coast’s best teams.

“Back in the 1970s we beat everybody in the Pac-10 except Berkeley,” he says. UC Berkeley is a perennial favorite for the Division 1 national championship.

An unconventional sport for an unconventional school

UC Santa Cruz has never competed in football, but it has had a rugby team almost since its founding.

George Kraw (Cowell ‘71, history/Russian literature), who played on the 1967 team and made the donation that enabled the purchase of the field lights, calls rugby a perfect sport for UC Santa Cruz, suiting the university’s unconventional identity. In that vein, the choice of banana slug for mascot expressed a sort of tongue-in-cheek exceptionalism.

“When you went walking at night you would step on them,” he says. “The idea of the fighting slugs. There’s a certain irony to that. It appealed to our nature.”

Both founding coaches were physics professors. Dorfan says the game seems to draw intellectuals.

“it is the violent game of choice for people with brains,” he says. “I don’t know why.”

Player Christopher Seay (Crown ‘17, astrophysics) joined the team last year seeking a contact sport. A good rugby match, he says, consists of “blood, sweat, and tears.”

“If you come off the field and you’re not dirty, that’s a bad game,” Seay says. “It might look like 30 dudes running around a field not knowing what to do, but it’s calculated. It’s 15 people attacking 15 other people for 80 minutes with a lot of strategy.”

Showing the NFL how to tackle

If you attend a practice match, such as this Saturday’s against Santa Rosa Junior College, expect running tackles and masses of players tangled in wrestling-like scrums. However, Kraw and Dorfan say rugby is less dangerous than its stepchild, American football. Tackling players keep their feet on the ground, and the tackle leads with the shoulder, not the head. Dorfan noted that football teams are starting to adopt rugby tackles to keep players safer.

“Because of all the concussions in football, the football teams are all hiring rugby players to teach them how to tackle.”

A $10,000 challenge from the original Slugs

On the heels of the donation of the portable floodlights, members of the 1967 team have offered a $10,000 annual matching gift. The aim is to challenge the 49 teams that have followed to double the donation and raise at least $20,000 for the team annually, coach Jeremy Sanford says.

Donations have already begun arriving. The funds will support training with Clayton McMillan, head coach for the New Zealand Maori All Blacks. Sanford attributes some of last year’s successes to McMillan’s guidance.

“Coach McMillan had a huge impact on our team last season—from how we pass and catch the ball to our attacking principles,” Sanford says. “One of his biggest contributions was to bring all of our coaching ideas into alignment."

The increased funding will also help the team cover expenses, as well as keep fees low so it’s easy to recruit players.

The men’s rugby team will play a series of pre-season matches. Visit the team website for dates of rugby competitions on the East Field. The Pacific West Rugby Conference season begins January 27. The season will culminate March 24 with a homecoming match against Stanford University and the annual Slug rugby reunion, where all current and former players are invited to celebrate the 50th anniversary.

2018 regular season matches:

  • Jan. 27 @ San Francisco State
  • Feb. 3 @ Chico State
  • Feb. 10 @ Fresno State
  • Feb. 17 Univeristy of Nevada, Reno (Home)
  • March 3 San Jose State (Home)
  • March 10 Sacramento State (Home)
  • March 24 Stanford University (Home)