Homegrown rugby talent propelling first-year San Diego Legion to success

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Major League Rugby will conclude its inaugural season with its 2018 championship match July 7 at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

It has been a debut season filled with much expectation and reward, especially for the San Diego Legion, one of the league’s seven first-year franchises.

The Legion recorded its highlight moment of the season last Saturday after handing the previously undefeated Glendale Raptors a stinging 33-5 defeat in front of a boisterous crowd at Torero Stadium.

Major League Rugby will conclude its inaugural season with its 2018 championship match July 7 at the University of San Diego’s Torero Stadium.

It has been a debut season filled with much expectation and reward, especially for the San Diego Legion, one of the league’s seven first-year franchises.

The Legion recorded its highlight moment of the season last Saturday after handing the previously undefeated Glendale Raptors a stinging 33-5 defeat in front of a boisterous crowd at Torero Stadium.

Besides finding success on the field, the Legion has also found success in other areas, especially in the development of homegrown talent.

It has also been a season of expectation and reward for the Legion’s complement of local players, Helix High School alumnus Nick Lupian among them.

Lupian played football his freshman and varsity seasons while attending Helix. He also wrestled and competed on the school’s track and field team.

But he followed the path of rugby, just getting a genesis at the high school level, to a five-year career at San Diego State University, where he rose up the ranks to become one of the Aztecs’ top players.

In fact, his college career ended on the Torero Stadium turf when he broke his collarbone in an April 7 match against Cal Poly San Luis Obispbo. The game, the final regular season match for SDSU, served as a pregame contest for the Legion’s exhibition game against the Houston SaberCats.

It took seven-and-a-half weeks for Lupian (5’11”, 195 lbs) to heal from the injury. But it was enough time to join the Legion for the second half of its season as a reserve center-wing.

He’s been patient in adjusting to the game, especially its physicality, at the professional level.

He remains eager to learn — and contribute.

“To grow up in San Diego and to play rugby here at the professional level is amazing,” he said. “Right now I’m out to improve and refine my ability.”

Lupian is hoping to have an extra week of practice if the Legion can emerge with a win in Saturday’s semifinal playoffs in Glendale, Colo.

The third-seeded Legion (5-3) will meet the second-seeded Seattle Seawolves (6-2) in the first of the semifinal doubleheader, followed by a match-up between the top-seeded Raptors (7-1) and the fourth-seeded Utah Warriors (3-5).

Both contests can be seen on the CBS Sports Network. The San Diego-Seattle game is scheduled for a 4 p.m. Pacific Time start.

Semifinal winners advance to the championship game a week later at Torero Stadium (6 p.m. start).  

Lupian is not the only San Diego County product helping the Legion find success in its inaugural season.

Back row Drew Gaffney (6-0, 220) and hooker Gil Covey (5-11, 230) are both Cathedral Catholic high School alums while flanker/loose forward Chris Turori (6-4, 225) hails from Valley Center.

They would like nothing better than to end their season in the MLR championship game.

Gaffney, who made the Legion’s opening day roster and scored his first try as a pro in a 39-23 loss at Seattle, drew significant playing time in last Saturday’s win over Glendale, the league’s flagship club.

“It’s an unreal experience,” explained Gaffney, a 2013 Dons graduate, who played football and rugby at Cathedral Catholic before going on to play four years of college rugby at Cal-Berkeley, one of the nation’s top rugby schools.

“Playing professional sports for my hometown team is something I never thought I would have. I’m so grateful for this opportunity.”

Gaffney, whose older brother Tyler Gaffney earned the lion’s share of publicity with the Dons, played offensive lineman and tight endon the Cathedral Catholic football team. He scored three touchdowns in 10 games his senior year.

The younger Gaffney started playing rugby his sophomore year in high school. It was love at first sight.

“They said that I could to run with the ball (in rugby) whereas in football that was not too common,” he said.

Covey, an all-conference honoree with the Aztecs, participated in the Legion’s inaugural preseason game March 25 in Austin, Texas.

Turori, who matriculated from CSU San Marcos, represented the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club at the 2013 USA Rugby Club Sevens national championship tournament. He remains in the U.S. Eagles Sevens national team player pool.

The U.S. Sevens program has been in residence at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center (formerly Chula Vista-U.S. Olympic Training Center) site since 2011.

Legion assistant coach Zack Test is a graduate of the U.S. Sevens men’s program, having recently retired as an active player prior to joining the Legion’s coaching staff. His 143 tries in the World Rugby Sevens Series had stood as the American record before being eclipsed earlier this year by Perry Baker.

“The OTC is an amazing place to grow as professionals and develop,” Test said. “We came in as amateurs and came out as professionals.”

Major League Rugby is continuing player development, serving the same role as Major League Soccer does for U.S. Soccer in providing a high level professional league in which to test talent.

“It’s going to be amazing for us,” Test said.

There’s little question that Major League Rugby has emerged as a driving force in developing players for USA Rugby — both for the U.S. Sevens and 15s national teams.

In fact, 12 MLR players, including six from the Raptors and three from the Legion, were called up to participate in the U.S. Men’s Eagles history-making 30-29 win over sixth-ranked Scotland June 16 in Houston.

The win over the Scots marked the first U.S. first victory against a Tier 1 rugby nation in 94 years. The last time the U.S. recorded such an impressive a victory was at the 1924 Olympics against France.

Impressively, the U.S. rallied from a 21-6 deficit on the scoreboard against Scotland.

The Legion would like to end the season on an impressive note.

The win over Glendale allowed the Legion to remain undefeated on its home pitch this season and extended its winning streak to three games.

The Legion has made up plenty of ground since dropping its season opener at Seattle on April 22. The San Diego team showed its steady improvement in a 31-27 loss at Glendale on May 13 before finally making a statement with last Saturday’s victory against the previously unbeaten Raptors.

“We still have some more work to do,” Gaffney offered. “We need to keep improving our performance – performance improvement is so important.”

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