Popular Independence Day rugby match rolls with the punches
The most popular show in town Wednesday almost didn’t happen.
The annual Fourth of July rugby match at City Park is supposed to be the cherry on top of the Independence Day celebration along the Wasatch Back, but after the early exhibition matches had been played, the opposing team for the main event didn’t show.
The Yeti, a team based out of Rexburg, Idaho, couldn’t field anything resembling a competitive side, so the powers-that-be took a page out of the playbook — the entertainment playbook.
Rather than holding a one-sided romp, the Park City Haggis Rugby Club, the home side, and members of the Utah Valley University club team created two squads. The Haggis still had a strong contingent of home-town players in order to create a good show for the eager fans.
Robert Lopez, who was nursing a nasty head cold, in just his third match since tearing his Achilles tendon in October, said Wednesday’s Independence Day match was one of the best in his playing career — and he’s been playing since 1986.
"It was a hard one," he said. "Honestly, it was a better showing with the guys from UVU than it would have been with the Yeti. Those guys went deep into the playoffs last year and got into the D-II championship match. We got to play with a bunch of tough men."
Lopez said the match was a perfect mixture of rugby All-Stars from around the state, and he was happy to see his impromptu Haggis side emerge with the victory, 42-29.
"When you’re in a competitive, intense game, you really want to win out and want to execute for the fans and the city," he said. "When you hear the guys screaming and taunting, ‘Come on, Lopez get these guys going!’ it’s fun."
Lopez said teammates Ryan Fletcher, Matt Griff and Jeff Beck were impressive, while Ryan Dunyon, Kory Olsen and Alex Stein also had respectable afternoons on the pitch.
"Fireworks were definitely on the field," he said of the 80-minute match. "It was hard-hitting, good and progressive rugby."
Haggis head coach Jason Hoke said coaching a makeshift lineup isn’t exactly fun, but it turned out better than expected.
"That event attracts a lot of rugby players that aren’t necessarily committed to any team around the state, so we pretty much send everyone in one direction," he said. "It was a seesaw game all the way through, so I think it worked out for everybody. There were some big hits and good defense and good offense.
"I hate to say it’s the norm for Utah rugby to change at the last minute, but it really is. It’s nothing we haven’t dealt with before. We sort of just rolled with the punches and went with it. At the end of the day, it’s all about providing a good show for the people of Park City and it’s not too hard to make that happen."
Next, the Park City Haggis has the Ski Town Tournament on its radar in Breckenridge, Colo., on Aug 4. Following that will be a celebratory 40th anniversary rugby match as Haggis and Park City Rugby Club will join forces to play at City Park on Sept. 1.
While there was no sure-fire winner Wednesday afternoon, Hoke said the winner, as usual, was the crowd that provided the electric atmosphere for the players.
"I think the big win was the fact we had a minute to get a game, and everybody stepped up and that was the win on the day," he said. "In reality, when you’re playing your own guys and friends, the win is still being able to play on the Fourth."
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