"My first game was great--I walked away with 12 stitches," said rugby player Ken Burnthorn without a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "I was hooked at that point."
Burnthorn had never played rugby before joining the pick-up games, which were started last year by Pleasanton resident Kevin Miller. Miller played rugby in college and missed playing the game, so he got a group together and now they regularly play Thursday evenings during the spring and summer months and every other Sunday morning during the winter.
"I like it because it's physical, but it's also non-stop," Miller said. "It's a true combination of hockey, basketball, wrestling and soccer with counter attacks and strategic play."
Rugby teams are usually made up of either 13 or 15 players that run across the field with an oval ball in an attempt to touch the ball on the other team's side, scoring a goal. A goal can also be made by kicking the ball over two upright goal posts. And, of course, the other team can stop goals by tackling opposing players.
The Pleasanton games attract a wide variety of players, ages 17-50, novice and experienced. In an effort to keep the games fair, the players will divide into two teams making sure there is an even distribution of skill, speed and size, Miller said. Because the men really just meet for pick-up games, they don't practice outside of their regular meetings, but Miller said most leagues will practice twice a week with games on the weekends. In fact, Miller is hoping that someone will be inspired to make the pick-up games a more formalized league in the future, although he admits he doesn't have the time to do it right now.
One player who is used to organizing, but perhaps also too busy to take up this project, is Pleasanton City Manager Nelson Fialho who joins in on the pick-up games. Fialho started playing rugby two years ago.
"We have all skill levels from people who are new to the game to people who have played professionally overseas and on the East Coast," Fialho said. "It's a great sport and a great release of energy."
Burnthorn has enjoyed this past year of rugby so much that he decided to try out for some competitive teams in the Bay Area. Since he works in San Jose, he's played a few games with the San Jose Seahawks in their pre-season and is planning on trying out to play with the Diablo Gaels in Walnut Creek.
"I just really love the game," Burnthorn said. "The camaraderie is like no other sport. It's really a team. American football is going in the way of every player for themselves, but rugby is no way like that."
Miller echoed this sentiment, saying his favorite part of the weekly pick-up games is the social aspect.
"We usually go to a local brewery after games with everyone's families," Miller said. "It's a family event."