Beers and Whistles
I was hitchhiking through Tulsa once, hungry and dirty on a weeknight. It was nearing six, so I asked for directions to the local rugby field. Sure enough, men were scrimmaging. The guys didn’t know me, but that night I ate pizza, showered, and slept on a couch. Like old friends, we unwound stories over beers.
Rugby is a welcoming sport, especially in America. A sense of honor and community develops when 30 men self-police behind one ref, or maybe it has to do with relying on teammates who’ll back you up despite, say, a broken face. (My captain in college did this. We won that game.) Injuries have forced me to retire from the pitch, but whenever I’m enduring my worst, someone in the rugby community reminds me I’ve got support.
The Bay Area is the epicenter of American rugby. Last time the sport was in the Olympics, in 1924, a ragtag team of Northern Californians won gold for the United States. The San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Club (SFGG) won the USA Rugby Super League championship in 2009 and placed second in 2010. When the Rugby World Cup kicks off in September of 2011, a disproportionate share of the U.S. team will hail from Northern California.
With the World Cup approaching, it was time for me to reconnect with San Francisco’s rugby community. I chose the method that required the least number of push-ups: watching games in my favorite bars.
When the Treasure Island navy base closed, San Francisco Golden Gate Rugby Club leased a dilapidated building in 2005 and some adjacent land on Treasure Island. The players were mostly electricians or carpenters, so each year they rebuilt part of what would become their clubhouse. The structure now has a jungle gym for kids, a kitchen, showers, locker rooms, a gorgeous playing field, and a bar.
The clubhouse is primarily a live sports venue. The bar (and TV) is open only when SFGG hosts a match. On those days, it’s quite a spot.
Rugby teams drink together after playing, both to show hospitality and to provide a formal sense of closure to whatever was boiling up on the field. This creates an eclectic mix of families, fans, and athletes at the clubhouse.
I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, early. For my $5 admission, I saw three games from the sidelines, then I retired to the bar to watch European matches on TV.
Imagine that an Irish carpenter built a bar for his friends. This is essentially SFGG’s taproom. (That used to be me pouring beers. The guys let me work when I’m short on cash.) Conversations moved fluidly in the spacious room. People milled about tables and bought pints by the round. There was only one TV, but it was completely dedicated to rugby – rarely the case in your average sports bar.
Some of the players flipped around to find a game. Rugby TV schedules are perpetually confusing. The matches used to be on Fox Soccer and Setanta Sports, and by 2011 several broadcasters, including Premium Sports, split rights to various games and leagues. We found a European club match to watch – Swansea versus Toulon.
Koko the cook fried me a heaping pastrami sandwich on a French roll with bacon and dried onions, the largest I’ve had in San Francisco, which I hauled in front of the TV. Pints of beer were $5, but Rolling Rock was on special: six for $20.
When I finished dinner, a television announcer said the next game would be Bath versus Biarritz. Time to move back into the city to mix things up a bit.
La Rocca's Corner in North Beach is an institution – it was DiMaggio’s old digs, the site of a mob hit, and a scene in a Bond movie. For me, however, it’s the best place to hear a good story on a Saturday night. The music doesn’t overwhelm conversation, and the crowd is generally grizzled and hilarious.
La Rocca's is technically a sports bar but I’ve always attended for more traditional reasons: drinking and conversation. However, the owners have equipped it with several TVs and a host of sports packages.
I asked the bartender about putting on the rugby game. Local players are regulars at La Rocca's, so he wasn’t fazed at the request, but it can be tough to find the right station. He fumbled through the channels. “They’re always changing up the rugby schedule,” he complained. “Setanta are a bag of assholes.”
It was a fine place for a game, but a man began a story about the Marines. I swiveled on my stool, leaned one elbow on the bar, and listened with a beer on my knee.
The next Friday afternoon, I caught England versus Wales, the opening game of the annual Six Nations tournament. (The six nations playing: Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, France, and Italy. They all dislike each other and they all hate England.) The Abbey Tavern, an Irish pub in the Richmond, was screening it.
I paid the $20 admission fee. Premium Sports’s contract requires bars to charge this price at the door for international matches. However, BBC America has rights to show one free Six Nations match every weekend.
A Welshman named Paul told me he took off work to watch the game. “It’s that important,” he said. “I woke up nervous this morning.”
His friend held a BlackBerry at arm’s length with his non-beer hand, squinting. “I’m sending an email,” he said. “So technically I am at work.”
After the Welsh lost, Paul bought a beer for David, an Englishman down the bar.
“It’s tough when the English beat the Welsh,” someone ribbed.
“It hasn’t happened in Cardiff since 2003, so it is a big event,” Paul responded. He nodded to the barkeep to include me in the round, as did David for the next. How could I refuse?
Mornings at The Kezar Pub are stuff of legends. It’s not hard to hear a story about the Ireland versus England game every St. Patrick’s Day weekend. Kezar opens early to show any big game, rugby especially. I called ahead to be sure.
I dragged myself out of bed Saturday morning to reach Kezar at 9 a.m. for France versus Scotland. I considered the 6:30 a.m. Ireland versus Italy match, but my Friday night ended short of the kickoff. I stepped out of the morning sun into the bar, wary of a doorman’s potential charge, but the game was free – BBC America had this round.
Fans in blue rugby jerseys (the color of both teams) had staked out the back corner of the bar. A waitress served a woman a cup of tea and some buttered toast, then served another woman a Guinness. A regular wandered in with a stroller, and the waitresses rushed over to coo at the baby. I had trouble telling which fans were which – one group kept yelling “Allez! Allez”! which indicated France, except that they clapped for Scotland’s running plays.
“It’s a gentleman’s game,” explained the man sitting next to me. “You applaud the other team if they make an especially nice play.”
France won. The fans cheered. The BBC announced that NBC had the rights to the Rugby World Cup this September. The fans cheered again.
I sat down with Cyril Hackett, owner of Kezar, after the match. “It doesn’t matter if there are two people or two hundred, if people are interested in the game, we’ll get it,” he said. He pointed out Patrick, a Frenchman from Berkeley who travels to Kezar every weekend during rugby season. “We tape games for Patrick sometimes. With rugby, it’s a community.”
I still had more Saturday to kill, so I took the 108 bus back to Treasure Island, where fans filled the bleachers. San Francisco pummeled Sacramento under the late sun. Afterwards I settled in at the humming bar and watched France versus Scotland again on TiVo with some ruggers from Modesto. They had just finished playing the Fog, another Treasure Island club, and said they knew they’d be treated like family at the clubhouse.
I started to leave, but in the parking lot two players waved me over. The sunset sky flushed above the East Bay, sharp pastels behind the bridge’s dark triangles. We leaned on the back bumper of a car and I cracked a cold Budweiser from their cooler. “My cousin from Sacramento almost killed me that game,” said one. Then after the whistle, he said, they shared a beer.
Rugby season is whenever the ground is softest, so in San Francisco, that’s February to May. Between Europe and the Southern Hemisphere, you can catch games almost year round.
Check online to see if the SFGG clubhouse will be open. The marquee game is always at 3 p.m., and the TV is on all day inside. Follow up with a trip to La Rocca’s in North Beach.
On Saturday, March 19, Ireland plays England for St. Patrick’s Day weekend. The game begins at 9:30 a.m. If you’re still drunk or want to be, head down to The Kezar Pub, The Abbey Tavern, or your local rugby pub.