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SACRAMENTO — 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, Jon, 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.

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 played 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.

Signing up with PRO Rugby was an act of faith for Meeson. It’s a fast-growing sport in the U.S., to be sure, but it doesn’t have enough supporters to justify a network TV contract. Therefore, the salaries are modest.

PRO Rugby has a tiered salary scale. Tier 1 players, most of whom have international experience, make $35,000 per year. Tier 2 players, who tend to have competed for good college programs and bigger American clubs, make $20,000. Tier 3 players get paid only if they suit up for a game.

Meeson is in Tier 2. And a $20,000-a-year salary doesn’t seem like much during a week like this, which included five hours of on-field practice, 3½ hours of film review, three hours of weight training, two hours of meetings, an hour of “craft session,” time set aside for team lunches and ice baths, plus a travel day Saturday and a game at Denver on Sunday.

“I think most of my paycheck outside of rent and utilities and that stuff, all of it’s on food and proteins and supplements,” Meeson said. “Just really making sure that I can prepare myself as best I can. But it would be a lie to say that I’m living a life of luxury.”

Like a lot of his teammates, Meeson searches for bargains.

“I went and bought six flats of chicken and threw five of them in the freezer,” he said. “And a couple of big bags of broccoli, threw them all in there.”

As Meeson charts his own survival, the bigger question is whether PRO Rugby can stick around. It’s a bold venture. Douglas Schoninger, a 55-year-old former bond trader who has never played rugby, founded the league with the blessing of USA Rugby and is bankrolling it himself. PRO Rugby kicked off in April with teams in Sacramento, San Francisco, San Diego, Denver and Ohio, areas that had thriving club teams. Schoninger hopes to turn a profit in the shadow of the NFL and other established sports leagues.

“There’s always room for another sport like rugby. Such a full-on contact, flowing game,” said Gross, who grew up in Indiana and wound up playing abroad for 13 years. “I think a lot of our American fans, and I’m one of ’em, we like that action, and the big hits. And these guys are as big as football players, but you’ve got to be able to run with that weight all day.”

The Express’ first game in April, against the San Francisco Rush, drew 3,400 fans to Bonney Field, which is on the grounds of Cal Expo in Sacramento. Gross is OK with that. He was playing in England when professional rugby started there, and he remembers games with less than 2,000 spectators.

“When I left, teams like Northampton, Wasps, Leicester, they’re getting 20-(thousand)-plus,” Gross said.

PRO Rugby is banking on the idea that its sport is about to gain traction here. America’s participation in the 2015 Rugby World Cup drew some attention, and now the U.S. is about to defend its gold medal at the Rio Olympics. (Rugby hasn’t been an Olympic sport since 1924.)

Meeson wants to believe that rugby can win America’s heart — and that he can play long enough to help it happen.

“To be part of this first group, well, I hope it means something when I look back at it 10 years, 20 years down the line,” he said. “It certainly means something to me.”

You can reach staff writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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