A scrum-level view of new rugby league
Over the years, a lot of guys have marked their 18th birthdays by buying a pack of cigarettes. Robert Meeson celebrated his by playing in his first rugby game.
He was hooked.
“We started training in January of 2005,” Meeson said. “It really kind of clicks on then when you’re going into contact, you’re doing scrums and all this stuff. I’ve been playing nonstop since then.”
Meeson, who grew up in Sebastopol and graduated from Analy High School, has been devoted to the sport for more than a decade now. He played with the Elsie Allen Rugby Club, and at UC Davis, and with the Santa Rosa Rugby Club and the Northern California Pelicans. And now, at 29, Meeson is going to battle with the Sacramento Express, part of PRO Rugby.
It’s the first season for America’s first true professional rugby league, and Meeson is in the middle of the scrum.
Maybe the game is in his blood. Both of his parents are from England. His father, David, started playing rugby there at the age of 11 and continued to suit up until he was in his 50s and playing for “old boys clubs,” as Robert put it, in California. When Robert was a boy, he and his dad and brothers would watch VHS tapes of the English national team.
Meeson toyed with rugby in junior high, but didn’t really play until his senior year of high school, when he joined Alan Petty’s squad at Elsie Allen. Meeson had run hurdles and jumped at Analy, and had dabbled (not very successfully, he says) in cross country and basketball. None of those sports resonated like rugby.
“It’s a lot more cerebral to me,” Meeson said at the Express’ training site at Depot Park, a converted U.S. Army depot in southeast Sacramento. The team’s offices are in the former Officers’ Club.
Rugby might not seem very complicated to the uninitiated, with its tangled masses of beefy bodies. Watch a game or practice close up, though, and you’ll notice a constant stream of on-field communication that outdoes any “post-snap read” in football. Meeson was drawn to rugby’s combination of muscle and brains.
‘Let’s throw it to Rob’
After a college hiatus, he graduated from Sonoma State in December with a degree in business administration, and was applying for jobs in February when PRO Rugby offered him a spot. It wasn’t the most prudent option, but Meeson couldn’t resist.
“It was like, well, I can have a crack at this. I’m 29, so we’ll make of it what we can,” he recalled. “Or if I say no, I’ll never get an opportunity like this ever again. So I said, hell, let’s go with it.”
Josh Inong, an old friend who also played for Elsie Allen and Santa Rosa Rugby, likewise was invited to try out for the Express. But Inong plays hooker, a position flush with competition, and did not make the final roster.
Meeson made the cut, and to his surprise he has started every game for the Express. The bearded, red-haired attacker is neither the strongest nor the fastest player on the field, but at 6-foot-4 he has a height advantage.
“Height is important,” said Express coach Luke Gross, who should know; he played at 6-9. “In the scrum, basically you lock out the scrum, and the longer levers really help get that power through. And then you’re also one of the main jumpers in the line-out to win the ball. In the game structure, you’re a ball-winner is what you really are.”
Gross played the same position that Meeson plays now: lock. At UC Davis, one of Meeson’s primary duties was to catch the ball on line-outs, restarts on which one player lobs the ball into the air and each team lifts a teammate high off the ground to catch it.
“When it came down to line-out time, it was, ‘Let’s get it in there, and let’s throw it to Rob,’ ” Meeson said. “So that was always something I took pride in. At this level, it’s like everyone can jump in the line-outs.”
So Meeson has developed other specialties. He lines up on the outside in the Express’ rush defense and tries to force the action inside.
Gross said that when he and his assistant coaches watch film, they’re amazed at how many plays Meeson shows up in.
“He’s dependable,” Gross said. “And the reason he’s dependable is because he’s always there. He always does his job. He will never stop. He’s like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going, keeps going. And for his position, that’s huge. So we depend on him for 80 minutes.”
Meeson is faster than most locks. He’s also undersized for the position, which is why Gross has him on a weight-gain program. Meeson started the season at about 215 pounds after preseason workouts. He’s at 230 now, and regularly plies himself with protein shakes and peanut butter to get bigger.