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Rugby: A hooligan game played by gentlemen

Operators coach Spencer Jones comes full circle after seven-year career in the U.S. Marine Corps., instills life lessons in kids

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - Cody Erhardt, who plays football and wrestles at Scappoose High School, takes part in a drill during rugby practice on Wednesday, April 8. Erhardt is the backs captain for the Operators.Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, a handful of rough-and-tumble boys congregate on the small grassy soccer field behind Warren Elementary, a field flanked by parents taking in their kids' little league practice. They toss around an oddly-shaped, dusty ball and dash around, rain or shine, as a single unit.

For first-year Columbia County Operators head coach Spencer Jones, rugby practice is about something more than the sport. He was brought in early in his high school days to train on the same field behind the same school, and says not much has changed.

“I fell in love with the sport, and it was something that was new,” Jones said. “Back then, it was considered a backyard sport. No one really knew anything about it. You mention Rugby, people were like, 'what is that?'”

Jones, who played football for a short while in high school, found a home on the rugby pitch. He was part of the first squad to play spring 15s back in 2003, and carried his rugby experience into a seven-year career in the marines after graduating in 2007 from Scappoose High School. Jones served with the first battalion, fourth Marines out of Camp Pendleton for three and a half years, and was injured during a tour in Iraq in 2008-09. He was deployed on the U.S.S. Dubuque before reenlisting in the first battalion, seventh Marines and serving in Sangin, Afghanistan in 2012.

JOHN WILLIAM HOWARD - First-year Operators head coach Spencer Jones developed a lifelong love of rugby from his playing days as a high school athlete.A second injury during his tour in Afghanistan brought about heartbreaking news — Jones would have to retire from the military, effective in January 2014. Once he returned “with my boys, my brothers in arms,” Jones sought out something he could relate to — and rugby was the obvious choice. He contacted the coach, now-assistant Robert Carrigan, and asked if he could help out. When Carrigan decided to step down from his head coaching duties after last season, Jones knew it was his time.

“I stepped up at the last minute and decided that this is something I wanted to keep going, because rugby helped me a lot when I was growing up as a teenager,” Jones said. “I know it helps these kids a lot and coaching is a very strong passion of mine, and so I brought my younger brother out here, who also used to play on the team. I got him into it, and this is his first year coaching. I'm coaching coaches, and I'm coaching players.”

It's no small commitment. Games are played on Saturday mornings as far away as Pendleton, and Jones doesn't exactly live in the area — he resides in Newberg, and drives to Portland to pick up his brother before practice. It's a four-hour commute all-told, and Jones still attends meetings with the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Thursday evenings.

His love for the sport, though he's on the sidelines and oftentimes finds himself drifting toward the field on game days, is as strong as ever. It's about a game and being active, sure, but the real benefit goes a little deeper: brotherhood.

“There's no way I can express it in words until you just get out there,” Jones said. “It's one of those things where you walk on the field, you look to your left and to your right, and you see the same guys you go to school with, the same guys that you hang out with, and you're all in one unit — a cohesive unit out there on the field playing a hooligan sport, as they call it. A hooligan sport played by gentlemen.”

Jones' catchphrase isn't exactly an original, it's a quote made popular by the movie Invictus, a 2009 film about the South African rugby team starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Rugby, in places like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and across Europe, is popular all over the world and is growing in the United States despite the pervasive idea that the sport is more dangerous than football.

The Operators' recruits range from football players and wrestlers to track athletes and golfers, and the first few weeks of practice are always interesting for those new to rugby. Unlike in football, rugby players must wrap up and bring a player all the way to the ground instead of body checking, shoulder checking, hip checking and the like. Jones plans to do a more in-depth job of educating parents in the upcoming offseason, hoping to hurdle concerns and continue to grow the program's numbers.

Over the last two years, Jones has encouraged his fellow veterans — some from the Vietnam and Korean War days, whom Jones refers to as the “old breed” — to attend Saturday matches and support the handful of boys who have decided to pursue a military career after high school. Jones says he doesn't encourage or discourage joining up, but he has shared his experiences and told the boys how his experience in rugby made him a better soldier — and how the military made him a better rugby player.

“This year, it pleases me more to see young men of the new generation empowered with the ability to make decisions on the go,” Jones said. “Quick initiative decisions, and that's a life lesson they'll be able to carry with them after rugby and after high school. That's one of my ultimate goals.”

The Operators, beset with vacations, a handful of injuries and a few academic holdouts, were forced to forfeit their last two matches, a pair of round-robin contests on April 4. The team started out with 21 members, but by the time everything was said and done, Jones was down to barely more than a car full of eligible athletes and put a decision up to the team: forfeit the matches, or allow academically ineligible players to compete.

The team, who Jones holds to a C-average despite Rugby Oregon having no such rule for competition, decided against playing. They'll get a shot at a bolstered roster on April 11, when the Operators will host West Linn at 10:30 a.m. at the Scappoose Middle School field.