Randy Angel

Mira Costa ruggers remain undefeated with playoff win

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Running its record to 9-0, Mira Costa’s rugby team has reached the playoff semifinals in its inaugural season. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Kobel

Running its record to 9-0, Mira Costa’s rugby team has reached the playoff semifinals in its inaugural season. Photo courtesy of Suzanne Kobel

In its first year of existence, the Mira Costa rugby team has made quite an impression on more experienced squads improving its record to 9-0 Saturday with a 63-14 rout over visiting Rancho Bernardo after the Broncos traveled to Waller Stadium from the San Diego area.

The top-seeded Mustangs will host Stern M.A.S.S. of Los Angeles on Saturday in a Blue Division semifinal game at 5:30 p.m. The playoffs are the culmination of the season played under the umbrella of the Southern California Youth Rugby Association which oversees competition from San Luis Obispo to San Diego and includes three divisions – Red, White and Blue.

Mira Costa out-manned Rancho Bernardo despite missing four starters including senior inside center Jahlani Tavai who was on a football recruiting trip to the University of Hawaii. Making the most of his older brother’s absence, Justus Tavai took the reins. After the game, the sophomore was selected Man of the Match by the Rancho Bernardo team.

Mira Costa’s Brandon Mills passes to a teammate during a recent Mustang victory in a Southern California Youth Rugby Association contest.

Mira Costa’s Brandon Mills passes to a teammate during a recent Mustang victory in a Southern California Youth Rugby Association contest.

Flanker Brandon Mills continued his strong performance this season, intercepting a pass and returning it 52 meters for the Try (score). Mira Costa head coach Duke Dulgarian said his team utilized its kicking game, scoring 24 first-half points on a windy night.

“Dane Largent, Kevin Brothers, Greg Briskin and team captain Harrison Morrow were among others physically dominating the opposition,” Dulgarian said. “In what was truly a team effort, we have reached the semifinals in a very successful first year.”

The camaraderie and respect between rugby players is displayed in the traditional “3rd Half” where the host team provides food for a post-game meal for players and coaches. Mira Costa supplied pizza for the boys as they mingled together after a physical contest consisting of two 35-minutes halves with running time.

“Rugby is big in San Diego and the Bay area,” said Dulgarian, who expects to see rugby become a CIF-sanctioned sport in the next few years. “It will happen first in San Diego and Orange County and will spread north, stemming from club teams. Travel is one of the drawbacks for us. Palos Verdes, Carson and Artesia, along with two L.A. Charter schools, are the closest schools fielding rugby teams.”

The Tavai’s, who have strong roots in the sport of rugby, have excelled this season. Jahlani has been named to the United States National U18 (7s and 15s) team. Justus has been drafted to try out for the State of California All Star Team.

“Islanders love the game,” Dulgarian said. “But Jonah Tavai, who is in eighth grade, might be the best of the crew. He plays on the Youth 16 team as a 13-year-old. However, the Tavai’s are only part of the story of our success. Morrow (fly half) has really picked up the game and become a highly valuable member of our team. Juwan Johnson (hooker) has become a fantastic player and freshman Harrison Dulgarian (scrum half) does an excellent job of directing the team and distributing the ball.”

Briskin, Mills and Morrow have expressed interest in playing rugby in college after graduating in June.

Duke Dulgarian played four years of rugby at UCLA and has coached in the LA Rugby Club for five years. He has served as a youth football coach for many seasons and was the head football coach at St. Bernard High School for four years in the late 1980s.

“Coaching rugby is so different than youth football,” Dulgarian explained. “Some coaches in football feel like we’re going to war, creating animosity. In rugby, sometimes you share the same sideline as the other team. Coaches will cheer good plays no matter what team makes them.”

Dulgarian credits his coaching staff, particularly Tevita Vaikona, for the team’s success this season. The Tonga-born Vaikona is a former player for England’s 7s (seven players per side) team.

“Tevita is a great coach and the kid’s love him,” Dulgarian said. “He’s been there competing at a high level of competition and the players respect that.”

In October, 2012 Dulgarian approached Mira Costa head football coach and then Athletic Director Don Morrow with the idea starting a rugby team.

“It has been an arduous process but Don has been behind us from the beginning, agreeing to be our faculty backer,” Dulgarian said. “(Principal) Ben Dale has been fantastic and is one of our biggest supporters and (Vice Principal/Athletic Director) Jaime Mancilla has been extremely helpful.”

The rugby team is a fully approved member of the Mira Costa High School Athletic Department.

Morrow’s support of the rugby team is evident with all but three players on the 25-man roster having played football, making the transition to rugby – the sport American football was derived from – much easier.

“Jahlani and Justus Tavai talked me into playing rugby after the football season was over,” said Largent, who played tight end and linebacker for the Mustang’s football team. “I love the game, probably more than football. You get the ball more and are involved in every play. I like being able to get up after being tackled and keep playing. It is truly a team game where every single guy is needed. Not one player dominates the game.”

In rugby, football players such as lineman Joe Anderson have opportunities to touch the ball and Briskin, who played quarterback for the Mustangs in the fall, can turn the tables and make tackles.

Played without pads and helmets, rugby is a physically demanding sport but because it is a “contact” sport compared to football, which is deemed a “collision” sport, there a fewer serious injuries.

“Sure, we have injuries – cuts and bruises and an occasional shoulder – but far less knee injuries and concussions,” said Dulgarian, who expects the popularity of rugby to grow quickly in the South Bay.

He has plans for Mira Costa to host teams from England in 2015 and suggest those unfamiliar with the game to view the YouTube video “Rugby 101.”

After being played at four of the first seven modern Summer Olympic Games, rugby makes its return to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. In October 2009, the International Olympic Committee overwhelming voted 81-8 in favor of including the sevens version of the sport. The United States is the defending gold medalist having won the event in 1924.