Park City’s Independence Day rugby roots run deep
July 1, 2011
Some people may not know it, but skiing and cycling has some serious competition in this town. In fact, once a year, Park City transforms into a rugby mecca with some of the state’s most seasoned rugby players making their way to City Park to celebrate the Fourth of July in rough-and-tumble fashion.
"I do take a lot of pride in this event," said Al Short, president of the Park City Rugby Football Club. "It’s a staple. It’s bigger than Park City. It’s an event known over the state, and that’s saying something. No one has been able to match the spectators and excitement that takes place."
The annual July 4th Rugbyfest and Independence Day Celebration has been a fixture of the commemoration of liberty in Summit County since 1972, according to Short, who has been associated with rugby in Park City for the last 10 years. He said the annual tournament is based around the sport of rugby, but is more about bringing communities together.
"We don’t care who wins or who loses," he said. "It’s a celebration."
The "local" team, known as the Haggis Rugby Football Club, is a combination of players from the Park City and Salt Lake areas. This club was formed in 2004 when the former local rugby club, the Park City Muckers, joined forces with their former rivals. Park City is the home base for the present club, and that point is proven every year as fans of Haggis and of local rugby pack City Park during July 4.
Robert Lopez has been playing rugby in Park City since 1986. The former president of Haggis, now a 44-year-old men among boys (has teammates as young as 19), Lopez said he is more than looking forward to celebrating his 25th anniversary on the pitch in potent fashion.
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"I think what the lure for Park City is, it’s been such a tradition, it’s just this vibe," he said. "People want rugby. It’s just one of those things I guess; it’s the blood, sweat and tears shed. It’s a hard-nosed game that Park City is drawn to that blue-collared deal that people are drawn to.
"This is what this town is made of. I think getting on the pitch at any time, you want to win. I don’t care who you are. We want to win for Park City."
Lopez, who owns a business in Park City, said the tradition reverberates throughout the entire state. Utah sports top-three collegiate teams in BYU and Utah and has produced several rugby players who play on national-team squads. Highland High School has been a national powerhouse for the last couple decades.
"I’m an old guy," Lopez said. "It’s just great to see the tradition of Park City and Haggis and all those years back in the ’70s. It’s a great tradition that we’ve had."
Hagoth Lelepali, who started playing rugby just four years ago, has played in the annual tournament in Park City for the last three years. While still fairly new to the sport, Lelepali said slipping on the Haggis uniform and running onto the pitch, with his wife and children watching, are all the motivation he needs.
"It’s one nobody wants to miss," he said. "In these games, everybody plays hard, but afterward, everybody is partying together. It’s probably my favorite game of the year."
Short said the Rugbyfest is at its best when the Fourth of July falls on or near a weekend, which allows the festivities to span over days. This year, Short said, the club will be able to host a day-long event Monday with activities ranging from rugby camps for kids and adults to a water-gun fight. Short said he is asking those interested in attending to bring their own water guns; there will be rules to the game and boundaries at a section of the park. A tug-of-war will follow with the losing team ending up in a pool filled with ice water.
The rugby sessions called "Rookie Rugby" will follow as the field will be closed off and rugby players from different teams in town for the tournament will help conduct a mini-camp to teach the willing about the sport of rugby and how to play. It will be a non-contact, cleat-less session.
"One half of field will be for kids, broken up into age groups," Short said. "The other half of the field will be there for teenager and above and they will be given quick instruction. They’ll have a chance to play a touch-rugby match."
As for the matches themselves, a 9 a.m. scrum will kick off the Old Boys Match, which will feature players 35 years and older. Short said it’s open to the public and this is when many of the former players come out and give it their best.
At 10 a.m., Haggis will take on United Alumni, consisting of former players from powerhouse high school programs around the state.
The premier match will be held around noon as Haggis take on the Utah Valley club squad.
Lopez said Haggis has been on a roll this season. According to Lopez, the team has lost only match since the season started in early spring. He said he is excited for some of the youngsters on the team to get a taste of the annual red, white and blue celebration.
Twenty-five years after his first Fourth of July match, Lopez said he is in awe of the age disparity between him and some of his teammates, but that doesn’t hold him back. In fact, he said it gives him extra motivation.
"Isn’t that scary?" he said.