When it comes to rugby, there are only two words to describe Jeff Lombard: game changer.
“In Chuckanut Bay Rugby, we were a competitive team in our heyday,” said Paul Horne, a former teammate and current co-coach of Lombard’s, in a phone interview. “We had a rule that if you didn’t come to practice on Thursday, you didn’t play Saturday. Jeff was off with the U.S. National Team, so we introduced the ‘Lombard Rule,’ when he was away on Thursday, and we found a way to get him to play Saturday. That rule was held to everyone except Jeff. He was a game-changer.”
Lombard continued his excellence in becoming the first U.S. National Team player to become the team’s manager after his playing career. He managed the junior team through its first tour of Europe in 1985, and took the national team on its first tour of Japan that same year before taking the team to its first Rugby World Cup in 1987, he said.
For these accomplishments and many others, Lombard is being recognized by the United States Rugby Foundation and being inducted as part of its class of 2015. Details of the ceremony have not yet been determined.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
Lombard was first introduced to rugby in junior college. He was looking to continuing his education and football career at the next level and had been considering Eastern Washington, Central Washington and Western Washington State College (now WWU). He said he was looking through the Western Washington State College pamphlet, when he read an article about the school’s successful rugby club.
“I said, ‘Hey, sounds like a contact sport. I’ll go for it,’” the 65-year-old Lombard said in a phone interview. “I was in Fort Ord finishing up advanced training when I received all my brochures and was introduced to rugby in 1969.”
The athletic Lombard took to rugby pretty quickly after learning the rules of the game. He had played tight end and fullback for his high school and college football teams, and was built well for his new sport.
“Jeff was a very good athlete. He played with a lot of heart and passion,” Horne said. “He was big and fast, and when you played against him, you knew you were in for a heck of a game. Fortunately I was always playing with him and witnessed some of the punishment he gave out. He was very fast, and when he hit you, you went down.”
Lombard played flanker, a rugby position similar to running back on offense and linebacker on defense, he explained.
He played for Chuckanut Bay in 1974, the year after it was founded, and he played with many of the founders in college. He also played with the Pacific Coast Grizzlies from 1977-80. During that time, he also was selected for the United States National Team as part of its first official U.S. trial process to get on the team.
He earned his first cap in a match against Canada in 1977. It was a bit of a home game for Lombard, as he had played against many of the Canadians he faced while with Chuckanut Bay and Pacific Coast, because the best Canadians at that time came from the Fraser Valley, he said.
“For me to come back into Canada in a USA jersey and play those guys again was a great experience,” Lombard said. “Not just to represent my country, but to play the guys I had competed with. It was a great experience, and I was the only local guy on the team.”
Lombard also earned a cap for the Eagles, during its trip to take on the English National Team in Twickenham. Rugby was so unknown in the United States at the time that the players had to play their way to West Point before getting on a plane the English paid for, he said.
“If we had gone to a minor country, it would have been out-of-pocket,” he said. “We got a Per Diem on that trip, which was unbelievable. And we played some of the great England legends. One of the famous guys was David Duckham, a legendary center for Coventry. He had retired, but he heard the ‘Yanks were coming, so he strapped on the tape again. He was a great legend to play against.”
After that, Lombard got into managing more. He coached the national team from Ferndale, even though headquarters were in Colorado, while running his sporting goods store. The national team manager at that time was more like a manager in baseball, he said.
“All the TV commitments and that stuff I delegated to whoever could speak and talk, but it was everything down to what we ate,” Lombard said of his duties. “It was a very big job, but things have changed quite a bit now. In ’87 I had three coaches and myself, and they assigned a baggage man and doctor to us. Now the manager has a dozen others under him. I was keen for it though, it was such an honor to be involved.”
Lombard and Horne also co-chaired and organized the Can-Am Summer 7s Tournament for 35 years as part of an administrative role they took in the Chuckanut Bay organization. He also managed Team America, a team of U.S. National Team alumni, from 1988-2008.
At WWU, now as a coach for the club rugby team, Lombard continues his passion for managing by helping the students who run the club keep track of all they have to do in regards to managing the club, tournaments and traveling. The team wouldn’t be as competitive and successful as it has been without Lombard’s mentorship, Horne said.
Horne also recalled why opponents admired Lombard during his playing days.
“He had some qualities that a lot of guys respected: his competitive spirit, playing within the laws, he played with a lot of passion,” Horne said. “Rugby is a game with one ref and 30 guys on the field. Jeff played within the laws and respected the laws of the game. That earned him the respect of people who played against him.”