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Portland rugby club is having a ball

Rugby club's Tualatin captain leads team to decisive victory, national ranking
by: Jaime Valdez Portland Pigs rugby team plays an early June scrimmage at Lents Park in Southeast Portland.

Alex Johnson is a Pig.

He doesn't have a curly tail, but put a rugby ball in his hand and he's a real animal.

'Football is like a chess game between two coaches, where the players are the pieces,' the 28-year-old Tualatin native said.

As captain of the Portland Pigs rugby club, Johnson is basking in the recent victory that netted the rugby squad a Pacific Northwest championship and a No. 9 national ranking.

'It's pretty amazingly fun,' the Tualatin native said. 'There's a saying that rugby is the sport played in heaven and I can see that. I can see why it's the sport played in heaven.'

The Pigs play rugby competitively nine months a year, and have other games during the off season.

After such a climactic season, one would think the players might take a well-deserved break, but instead, several members of the team - including residents of Beaverton, Sherwood and Tualatin - gathered on a chilly early June evening for a hastily arranged scrimmage match at Lents Park in Southeast Portland.

With porky mascots Zulu and Lucille squealing and cavorting along the sidelines, the two-legged Pigs zigged and zagged and hooted and hollered through a casual, yet spirited, tackle-free match on the grassy field.

Taking a breather from the one-off scrimmage, Cedar Mill resident Daniel Staton seemed totally in his element amid the clamor both on and off the field, where his prized pet pigs gleefully took in the action.

'It's all one big family out here,' he says with a grin, gesturing toward 200-pound Zulu, 3, and comparatively tiny Lucille. 'They're the happiest pigs around.'

All for one

With a 22-15 victory over Tulsa at the Sweet 16 tournament in Chula Vista, Calif. - placing the 2010-11 Division II team ninth in the nation - the Portland Rugby Club is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year with a pretty happy pack o' Pigs.

'The players really came together as a group,' says head Coach Andy Edmundson of the just-concluded season. 'It's the team that works together that's going to be much more successful than the team that relies on one or two superstars to do their work.

'I think that sort of sums up our season,' he adds. 'We took the focus off superstars and emphasized that everybody has to be part of this.'

Imported expert

A native of Australia, Edmundson brought his love of rugby to Oregon in 2007. Moving from Oregon City to Beaverton the next year, he graduated from assistant coach in 2010.

Edmundson, 30, says he's undaunted by the fact that rugby doesn't get the mainstream attention of football, basketball or even soccer.

'It doesn't frustrate me,' he says. 'I enjoy the challenge of that.'

Part of the challenge is convincing parents that rugby, which calls for tackling, quick hand passing and aggressive blocking movements, isn't an inherently violent or hooligan-friendly sport.

'Some soccer moms come out and say, 'I'm not gonna let my kids do that,'' he says. 'I played soccer, and I had far more injuries. I don't buy into the idea that (rugby) is more injury prone.'

It does engender toughness, he adds, in the best possible ways.

'It makes you a strong individual and builds character. You'll develop as a person playing rugby. There's nothing else like it.'

Back in the high life

Despite the 2010-11 season's overall success, the Pigs didn't take lightly the team's 33-17 loss to the Albuquerque Aardvarks the day before the Pigs pummeled the Tulsa team.

'We had the potential to win that game and continue on to the Final Four,' says Staton of the national championship tournament in Denver. 'It was a real wrenching loss, but we put together a decent team the next day and came out with a morale-boosting win.'

A Beaverton-based carpenter, Staton, 31, credits his brother, Michael, with getting him into rugby in 2006.

'Some of the senior members of the club mentored me and showed me all the critical points,' he says. 'It was difficult at the time because the Pigs hadn't won in years.'

Captain Johnson, who also serves as the organization's secretary, admits the Pigs' success through the club's 50 years has been a roller-coaster ride.

Regional victories in the 1960s and '70s led to a decade or two in the wilderness before a Northwest championship victory in 2009 returned the team to the big leagues.

'Pre-2004, we were bottom of the league,' he says. 'Since then, we've been either above .500 or beating other teams pretty handily.'

Brothers in arms

Despite similarities between the shape of the ball and use of hand passes to score a goal, Johnson says rugby - where intense play can continue for 10 minutes or more - has more in common with soccer than American football.

'Rugby evolved from soccer in terms of how much (a player) has to think on the field,' Johnson said. 'It's 40 minutes where you make the decisions - with no time outs. If you find a weakness in the opponent, you quickly communicate it to the rest of the guys, and that's how you beat' the other team.

But in rugby, 'beating' the other guys is a relative term. It's standard practice for the host team to share food, drink and camaraderie with visitors after the match concludes.

'You spend 80 minutes trying to beat the other guys up, then you go have a beer together,' says Chris Hall, a Sherwood resident. 'It's a great way to develop relationships with other individuals. You meet a lot of friends through that.'

A member of the Pigs squad since 1995, Hall, 45, says he's savored the team's gradual resurgence.

'It shows the hard work we've put in through the season,' he says, recalling darker days when getting 14 players to practice was considered a success. 'We've built it back up to where it's competitive.'

He credits Rugby Oregon, the organization that coordinates middle- and high school-based teams throughout the state, with expanding the pool of seasoned players, many of whom participate well into middle age.

'I think Rugby Oregon has done a great job of spreading the interest to younger and younger players,' he says.

Position of strength

Despite his disappointment in not making the Final Four, Staton says the Pigs' recent success was decisive and points the way forward for a re-energized team.

'It was our first time going that far. Now that we've done it, it's not such an unattainable goal,' he says, noting he's more than ready for the upcoming season to start this fall.

'I just can't wait for it to start again.'

- Geoff Pursinger and Jaime Valdez contributed to this story