Beyer High School and University of the Pacific graduate Christina Gein spent a year in New Zealand – “the mecca of rugby,” she says – and six months in Uganda to study the coaching and club development of the sport.
She’s brought that wealth of experience back to her hometown, where she’s launching the Modesto Rugby Club for kids from age 5 or 6 through high school.
Gein always has loved full-contact sports, she said, and played on the Beyer High football team her sophomore year. She was introduced to rugby at UOP and played throughout college until graduating in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in sports management.
You’re gonna get bumps and bruises, they’re your badges of honor. I joke that I look like a Dalmatian during rugby season I have so many bruises.
“I fell in love with the culture of the sport,” she said. Across the globe, rugby players share five core values: passion, integrity, solidarity, discipline and respect. “I’ve never met a rugger who doesn’t have those characteristics,” Gein said.
A youth team sports tracking study done by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association from 2009 to 2014 found that rugby was the fastest-growing team sport for youth ages 6 to 17, with a 100.7 percent participation increase during that time.
Gein, who’s “never been a big-city type person,” thought there was no better place than to start a club of her own than Modesto. “I started out with word of mouth, with a few high school boys telling their friends,” she said. “I realize that during school, most high school kids are in other sports, so I’m still working on building a high school team – those boys really want to play – but it’s not going to happen immediately. And I need a grassroots system to feed into that.”
There’s football and soccer in the fall and baseball and basketball in the spring. We needed a summer sport.
Kris Winter, on exposing son Kollin, 8, to different sports
So she gathered email addresses at her gym, created a Facebook page and – just Tuesday night – an Instagram account, and printed 400 fliers that were tucked into doors. Gein has a board of directors – primarily people who will help coach – and is in the process of filing for nonprofit status.
The first gathering was Tuesday evening at Ustach Park and drew three high school boys and five grade-schoolers – a boy and four girls.
One of those who found a flier at his door was Kris Winter. He intended to bring just son Kollin, 8, but Kollin’s three sisters wanted to try rugby, too, so all four were on the field. “You never know what sport they’re going to excel at,” Winter said. Kollin is fast and an all-around athlete, his father said, and “I love exposing him to as many different sports as possible.”
Winter said he hopes to bring more kids but first wanted to learn more about the age divisions and other things.
Gein plays on a Division 1 team in Hayward called the Life West Gladiatrix. The team played the USA Rugby Women’s D1 National Championship final on Saturday in Colorado, defeating the Raleigh Venom to bring home the national trophy.
Meredith MacDonald brought her youngest, 9-year-old Zara. MacDonald’s husband is a longtime player, and the couple have three older children who play: a daughter who’s a junior at UC San Diego, a son who’s going to be a freshman at the University of Washington and a high school senior who plays for the Pleasanton Cavaliers Rugby Club.
“There’s an under-10 in Pleasanton where I thought I might have to take her, and then this popped up,” MacDonald said. “What a relief I don’t have to make that drive. ... She’s been chomping at the bit to play.”
Her family loves the camaraderie that comes with rugby, MacDonald said. “She’ll make great friendships,” she predicted for Zara.
Summer practices – each Tuesday at 6 p.m. at the park, Hillglen Drive and Bear Cub Lane – are free and open to any kids interested in playing or anyone at all interested in learning more about the game, Gein said. Her longterm vision is to build boys and girls high school, junior high and under-12 teams, as well as coed U10 and U8 teams. Teams will be registered with USA Rugby and Rugby NorCal.
When you maneuver the ball down the field, the game is like chess. So she’ll be sharpening her intellect along with her athletic abilities.
Meredith MacDonald, on 9-year-old daughter Zara playing rugby
People often compare rugby to American football, primarily because of its physicality, Gein said, and the similarity of scoring. But the flow of the game is much different, she said. For example, the ball can be passed only backward in rugby, though it can be kicked forward. There are no downs as in football – “you maintain possession of the ball as long as you have it, which is more similar to soccer,” she said.
It also has a reputation for being rough – even more than football, some say. “It is totally understandable it looks concerning,” Gein said, addressing possible worries by parents. “No helmets or padding and players just smashing into one another.”
But statistics bear out that the rate of serious injury is higher in football, she said. “I’ve been playing highly competitive rugby for seven years around the world and I’ve never had a serious injury, never been concussed. When you’re not wearing helmets and pads, you’re more aware of your vulnerability, you don’t put yourself in situations you’re likely to get hurt.”
I would love to see as many girls as boys. I think rugby is great for girls, because there really aren’t super-physical sports for girls. They can play football or wrestle, but usually they have to do it with the boys. It’s different when it’s a team of fellow sisters battling on the field.
Rugby rules also are “super strict” to ensure player safety, she said. And as she builds the Modesto Rugby Club, the U10 and U8 play will be no-contact, then partial contact with U12, moving into full-contact for high-schoolers.
Though it’s a way down the road, Gein anticipates Modesto Rugby Club teams would be able to find competition in Sacramento, Fresno and the Bay Area and East Bay, at least. She’s also spoken with a Merced resident who’s trying to get a club started there. “That would provide great close-range competition,” said Gein, who is pursuing her real-estate license and intends to remain in Modesto.
A Stanislaus Rugby Club for youth was begun in 2011 and active a couple of years, but founder Gary Pritchard said he was unable to sustain the program without any help coaching. As many as 30 to 40 kids were involved, Pritchard said, and he still has a list of kids who would love to play.
Deke Farrow: 209-578-2327