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Arts & Entertainment

Scrum Seekers

Utah shows off its status as America’s rubgy hotbed.

By Geoff Griffin
Posted // June 11,2007 -

Utah can’t be matched for its conservative politics, unique history of marital practices, skiing opportunities'and rugby teams?

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Murray Park will be the rugby capital of America this weekend when it hosts the high school national championships, with Utah teams Highland and United considered favorites in both divisions being contested. In August, Park City will host USA Rugby’s men’s and women’s All-Star 7’s national championship. BYU recently finished second in the national tournament for college rugby clubs, while Utah made the final four of the same tourney in 2006. Several players in the development program for the national team are from Utah. Club teams such as Park City Haggis have won national titles. “This is the place for rugby,” says Larry Gelwix, coach of the Highland team that has won 16 national titles in the 22 years a national high school tournament has been held.

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What makes tradition-bound Utah so interested in a sport that is not traditional in America? One factor everyone agrees on is the number of Polynesians on the Wasatch Front who come from Tonga, Samoa and New Zealand, where rugby is the national pastime. According to Kim Brock of USA Rugby, the sport’s sanctioning body based in Boulder, Colo., “The Pacific Islanders are a big factor. They bring that rugby tradition and culture with them.?

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Players of Polynesian descent figure prominently in many top high school club teams in the Salt Lake Valley. In fact, since rugby is not sanctioned by the Utah High School Activities Association, many of the nine high school teams in the state field players from more than one high school. But there are also players from other ethnic backgrounds who try the game in high school'often as a way to stay in shape for football during the spring'and find they are hooked from their first hit.

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Brothers Hata and Colin Puriri, whose family hails from New Zealand but has lived in Alpine for more than 30 years, coach the United club team that fields more than 60 players'only three of whom can trace even part of their ancestry to the Pacific Islands. The Puriri brothers started United six years ago when, according to Colin, “Some kids in the neighborhood saw it on TV and wanted to try it.” And while Colin comes from a culture where “rugby is a part of their religion and life,” he and Hata have coached kids with no previous exposure to the sport to the point where they are the top seed in the second-tier bracket of this year’s tournament.

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United player Jacob Woodward said he took up the spring sport as a sophomore because, “I didn’t make the baseball team, and I needed something to do. Some friends told me to come try this and I’ve become completely addicted to it.?

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“It’s the ultimate team sport,” noted Cameron Loser. “Football is more about just one person and their stats. In rugby, you have to work with every other person on your team for it to work.?

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Besides the teamwork, players who try the sport and come to love it say they enjoy the aggressiveness combined with the nonstop flow of the game. Or as United’s Scott Gowdy puts it, “It’s like soccer on ’roids.?

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And for those who play line in football, rugby offers that most precious of opportunities: “In rugby, even the fat kids get a chance to touch the ball,” joked Highland captain Mark Goldhardt, who has also played football at Olympus High School.

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Tonata Lauti, also a captain on the Highland team, said that the more players learn about the game, the more they love it. He grew up watching his older brothers play but didn’t take up the sport himself until he got to high school. “People sometimes ask me, ?How do you know what’s going on’? But if you learn how to play it, you’ll understand it, and then you’ll like it.?

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Gelwix began building Utah’s winning rugby tradition while working as an LDS seminary teacher at Highland in 1975. He declared, “What every young man needs to do is play rugby,” and formed a club team, then the only one of its kind in the state. Gelwix later left teaching and combined his position as CEO of Columbus Travel (he also appears on local television and radio programs as “The Getaway Guru?) with fund-raising that has allowed his teams to travel nationally and even internationally over the years while building up the program’s reputation on the way to a 357-9 record. That level of dominance can inspire both awe and resentment. Or, as Gelwix puts it, “Everybody wants to dance on our grave.?

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“Highland’s kind of like the [New York] Yankees,” said Jeremy Johnson of the Utah Rugby Football Union, while also noting that Highland’s success has led to an improvement of other Utah high school clubs because, “the other schools have tried to rise to their level.?

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“When you’re playing one of the best team in the nation, it helps build up the level of rugby,” United coach Colin Puriri said of Highland. “Everyone wants to beat them.?

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That will be especially true this weekend as Utah takes center stage as America’s hotbed of rugby.

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USA Rugby High School Championships
nMurray Park Rugby Stadium
n5201 S. Murray Park Lane
nMay 18-19
nTickets: Adults $10, Students $5
nUtahRFU.org

 
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