SANTA FE, N.M. — Los Santos de Santa Fe come in all shapes and sizes and avocations.
No, they are not quite saints.
As a matter of fact, if one were to watch one of their matches, they would appear to be from some other place a little south of heaven.
No, these Santos are rugby players, carrying the flag locally for the growing sport since 1971.
And now this gritty group of scrummers is looking to accomplish something unprecedented in the long history of the team.
Already in the final 16 for the second straight year in USA Rugby’s Division III club championship, the Saints are trying to advance to the last eight when they play a squad from Beaumont, Calif., on Saturday in Tucson.
“We can win,” said Elden Pennington, 34, a Santa Fe attorney who dabbles at fly half or inside center, or even recently at outside center because of some team injuries. “We are a close-knit group of guys who are not scared to fight like junkyard dogs to win. When you trust the guy to your left and you trust the guy to your right, we’re good.”
The team is coming off a couple of wins in Albuquerque against two Arizona teams to claim the Rio Grande/Arizona Rugby Union title and move into the round of 16.
“We’re not the most finesse team, but we have grit and we dig deep when we need to,” Pennington said. “And we proved that against the Arizona guys. We were the second seed out of New Mexico and on Sunday we played their No. 1 seed, and we drove those guys down. We wore them out.”
The Rio Grande grouping also includes two teams from Albuquerque, and one each from Las Cruces and El Paso.
“I think it’s something for us to be proud of,” said flanker Ryan Weir, one of the team captains. “We’re probably one of the smallest, if not the smallest, city in terms of population. It is something to be proud of in terms of finding guys willing to work together toward a common goal. A lot of these guys were born and raised in Santa Fe, and I know they love to represent the town.”
Almost all of the players came to the game as late teenagers, or even later, so strategy is kept relatively basic.
“We keep things pretty simple,” said Weir, a firefighter/EMT in Los Alamos. “We have guys that have played rugby for years and years, and some guys for just a couple of years. Myself and other team leaders, we try and coach the basics and keep it simple for the guys.”
That means hitting hard and often, he said.
“We go in with a game plan of smash-mouth rugby,” Weir said. “Simple but physical. We have a large team, we have some horses in there, so we play to our strengths. And our physicality is in the defense. Compared to other systems, we’re flashy offensively. We try to strive to be defensive and grind teams out. I think that suits our personality. We have a lot of blue collar, northern New Mexico guys that enjoy that style of play.”
One of the truly gratifying aspects of the team’s run is doing it for all the former Santos who no longer play, but remain connected with the team.
“Rugby is a culture of tradition,” Weir said. “We wear the jersey for the guys before us. In rugby, they’re called old boys. They used to play, but they’re too old in the body to still go out in the field. Their minds still want to, so they come to practice and help out, or give us scouting reports. Our old boy culture is strong.”
And if things go well Saturday, both old guys and new guys will be celebrating a legendary playoff run.