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Napa players find brotherhood in rugby

Members of the Napa Valley Rugby Club, also known as the Wine Thieves, play from their home field, Kennedy Park in Napa. (provided photo)

DOUG ERNST , TOWNS CORRESPONDENT

Paul Hughes grew up with American football and didn’t see his first rugby game until his junior year in high school at Sonoma Valley High. Within five minutes he had fallen in love with the game, and he has played “rugger” ever since.

For the past two years, the 33-year-old Sonoma resident and general contractor has been a player-coach for the 35-member Napa Valley Rugby Club, also known as the Wine Thieves.

The team, with players ages 22 to 50, competes in Northern California Division III of the Pacific Coast Union, taking on 14 other teams from Shasta to Aptos. Their home field is Kennedy Park in Napa.

“It takes two days to learn rugby but four years to really understand it,” said Hughes. “If you let your brain get in the way of your athletic ability, it can be very hard. It’s like a chess game with coaches.”

Mindful that “a coach’s place is on the practice field,” Hughes said he gives players a wide berth, but he teaches them how to communicate with each other. He said no other game depends as much on teamwork.

During games, 23 players are eligible but only 15 play at any one time, on offense and defense at the same time. The kickers also play full time.

“Everybody has their own job to do, but at the same time, if you see someone not doing their job, you have to go fill the levee,” Hughes said. “If one guy goes down, any of the other 14 can fill the levee.”

He started playing rugby at 19, joining the Marin Reds, a men’s club.

“Rugby turned my life around,” said Hughes, who said he was headed in the wrong direction before he found the social support he needed. He found his fellow players were “always there for each other,” on and off the field.

The oldest player on the Napa Valley team is retired Napa County Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Jones, 50, of Napa. He describes rugby as the kind of sport that helps young people find direction in life, with the game’s social aspect as important as the game in many ways.

“Inner-city kids come together because of rugby,” Jones said. “The team concept brings them together and keeps them out of trouble. Nothing is expected of you other than to do your best. That’s all it takes to be part of a society of guys who look out for each other.”

His son James, 26, played rugby for a time in Australia, then came back to Napa to play with his father on the Wine Thieves. Jones said he and his son were attracted to “the brotherhood of rugby, on the field and off. You do everything for each other. If they find out you’re a rugger, they immediately accept you.”

Napa Valley teammate Tim Espinoza, 27, was raised on baseball, but came over to rugby after getting a taste of the camaraderie.

“All you need is cleats and a mouth guard to play rugby,” said Espinoza, direct sales manager at Carneros Brewing Company. “You’re immediately accepted, arm in arm, in the huddle, with enormous respect for each other.”

However, player-coach Hughes, who also coaches a girls’ rugby team at Sonoma Valley High School, stresses the need for fitness.

“A large majority of games are won in the final 15 minutes,” he said, usually by the team trained for endurance. That’s why players work out four times a week.

“Paul’s intensity is off the hook,” Jones said, “which rubs off on all of us.”

As a result, the Wine Thieves vied with their primary rival, Colusa County, for the Division III crown. In mid-April, they earned it with a 9-1 record. The team went on to lose its April 18 playoff game to the Reno Zephyrs, 47-33.

Rugby originated in 1845 at the Rugby School in Rugby, Warwickshire. It is the third fastest-growing sport in the U.S., which will field a rugby team in the 2016 Olympics. Some 120 countries will compete for the World Cup in England and Wales this fall for about 400 million fans worldwide, primarily in England, France, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.

The Napa Valley Rugby Club is part of the United States of America Rugby Football Union, which includes youth and women’s teams in every state. For information about joining the team for next year’s league play, call 732-6255.

Contact Napa Valley Towns Correspondent Doug Ernst at NapaValleyTowns@gmail.com.