Rugby Festival returns to its May roots

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Photos by Nick Morrow The Catalina Rugby Festival offers some hard-fought battles on the Paddock, but the ultimate goal is not a championship, but fun and fund-raising.

Festival helps raise money for cancer support group

By Ted Apodaca

In September, the Catalina Rugby Festival held its first event since the pandemic shutdown. The September event was mostly a holdover of groups that had signed up before the delay. Over Mother’s Day weekend, the annual event, which began in 1992, returned to the first weekend in May, its usual date.

Due to having only one field, the event can only accommodate about 10 teams and its return to May saw the field of teams max out. It was essentially an overflow, as there were enough individuals to make up an extra team that was slotted into the field as other teams had to leave early.

“We put together a side (team) of guys who wanted to play,” organizer Tom Hendrix said.

Teams played hard and the end result was a 10-way tie for third place. Which is not unusual because every team is guaranteed at least three games and a third-place finish. While they compete on the field, competition is not the ultimate goal – fun and fundraising is the end game.

“It’s very social,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix’s identical twin brother Joe was the original founder of the game. He and Tom started it in 1992. On a trip to Catalina, Joe saw a baseball team headed to the island to play against Avalon High. He decided to check out the game and afterwards decided he wanted to move the rugby festival to Catalina.

Three years later the event moved to the island and has returned every year (barring COVID) since. With a connection to the LA Rugby Club, the event regularly draws teams and players from the Southern California area. Tom continued the festival after his brother Joe passed away from Non-hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2011. But over the years, it has also developed a wide draw from distant places.

“We get people from all over the country just showing up,” Hendrix said.

This year the field included teams from Tennessee and Arizona and one individual travels regularly from Alaska to join a team looking for players. This year, a group from San Francisco joined. When they had to leave early for Mother’s Day, Hendrix said he asked why they didn’t bring their wives. He said their reply was that they didn’t know how nice the island and the event would be, but next year, they plan on bringing them.

The event started as a tournament for players over the age of 35. But younger guys were getting involved, so the upped the age to over 40. There are still issues with guys under the age limit getting involved, but the fact that nobody takes the game too seriously, makes it easy for players to only play as much as they want to. Players may only play one game, or not even a whole game at a time. They are there for the social aspect.

“Everybody wants to end up at the Sand Trap anyway,” Hendrix said.

Traditionally, the origins of the game included a post-game sandwich and a beer, hence the Sand Trap. The activities usually find their way to Luau Larry’s, one of the festivals big sponsors, as well. Hendrix also noted the support of the Village Inn. The primary organization that benefits from the proceeds is the Cancer Support Community, South Bay. The organization provides psychosocial and emotional support to cancer patients and their families, as they deal with cancer treatments.

According to their website, they offer classes, programs and services that help reduce feelings of isolation for those dealing with cancer and can help improve quality of life. The LA Rugby Club will get a donation, but the bulk of the estimated nearly $15,000 raised will go to CSCSB, according to Hendrix.

The Festival is run by volunteers, many of whom are members of the LA Rugby Club. There is also Julian Bristow, who travels From Coos Bay, Oregon every year to help staff the event. Hendrix said the list of support is long and also noted the help of the City of Avalon Parks and Recreation Department in helping get the festival set up.

“Dave (Hart) has been a huge help,” Hendrix said.

Hendrix is retired and has also retired from actually playing Rugby, but continues to spend his time organizing and improving the festival. He said women have expressed an interest in playing, but they have yet to have enough of them to add a women’s division, but they are trying. He also noted that some of the players bring clubs to play a round of golf and they are hoping to add a golf tournament to the festivities.

Regardless of what else they add, Hendrix said that much of the draw still centers around the idea of spending a weekend on Catalina.

“When people get off the boat, who have never been to Catalina, they are blown away by the ambiance,” Hendrix said.

For more on the festival, visit catalinarugby.org. For more on Cancer Support Community, South Bay visit cscsouthbay.org.

Rugby Festival returns to its May roots