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Ready for rugby?

Whether you’re a die-hard, throw-back Park City rugby fan or a casual partaker of the annual Fourth of July tournament, there are suddenly a whole lot more opportunities to appreciate the game this fall.

The fun can start as soon as tonight with the movie "Forever Strong," premiering in movie theaters nationwide this weekend. The movie, which revolves around the storied program at Highland High School in Salt Lake, is an opportunity for rugby lovers as well as those who have never seen the game to get an intimate look at the perennial high school national champions.

Attending the movie will be a priority for the newly-formed Park City High School Rugby Club. According to head coach Alan Short, the boys gave been looking forward to this premiere for months and planned to attend as a group to opening night on Sept. 26.

The story revolves around an Arizona-born teen in juvenile detention that has the choice to play on the Highland High team or stay in lockdown. Highland’s reputation is known around the country, making it one of the most feared and hated programs, so the choice is a struggle, but he decides to play. Highland’s commitment to excellence in the sport is profiled throughout the film and weaves a story that Short believes will interest anybody.

"It’s a feel-good movie," he said.

He compares it to the movie "Rudy" and notes that the star of Rudy actually appears in "Forever Strong."

USA Rugby, the American governing body for the sport, is trying to bring rugby to the masses and Short said that this is a step in the right direction.

"USA Rugby’s motto is, ‘Inspiring America to fall in love with rugby,’" Short said. "People involved with the film are in love and want the rest of America to do that."

He explains that right now, rugby is more of a recreational, club sport in America, but the hope is to grow the competitive side of the sport. He said that if more sponsors come on board and more international games make their way to the states, the growth could be astounding.

Highland’s program, run by straight-laced coach Larry Gelwix, who doesn’t allow any drinking, smoking or misbehavior from his team, should also go a long way to show America that rugby is not just about partying and therefore increase its appeal to a wider audience.

Short himself is trying to widen the sport’s appeal, be it on a much smaller scale. He created the high school program last year and has since created a program for youth in Summit and Wasatch counties. Right now, he has a couple of students from each of the three local high schools and few from Wasatch attending his three-day-a-week practices, but he is hoping to attract many more.

Along with youth coach Sam Madison, Short has been using the fall to help teach youth the fundamentals of the game so they can be ready to play in the spring season. He said that any child through the ninth grade is welcome to join the youth team and anybody in 10th through 12th grade can come out for the high school squad. Both boys and girls are welcome and, although rugby is often known as a "big guys" sport, he said that kids of all sizes are already playing.

For those still unsure if rugby is truly a sport they can get into, there is yet one more way that locals can check out the action. On Nov. 8, two international games involving Uruguay and New Zealand county vs. the U.S. Eagles national team will take place at the newt Real Salt Lake Stadium in Sandy.

Short expects that Park City Haggis player Mate Moekiola will likely be chosen to play on the American side. Moekiola has been on the Eagles’ roster as the starter in the prop position for the past two years and has appeared in World Cups and other national games. There could potentially be five other men chosen from the Park City team.

The U.S. contingent should have there hands full, especially with the New Zealand team. Although the tournament does not the nation’s best players, rugby is New Zealand’s No. 1 sport, so even the second-tier guys are very good.

"They’ll still be awesome rugby players," Short said. "If we beat that team, it will be good."

Local rugby organizations are currently starting a big push to promote the game. Rugby is a traditional Polynesian sport and, considering the sizeable Polynesian population in the state, it shouldn’t be too difficult to garner interest in the event. But Short hopes to see a little bit of everybody, especially Parkites. He said that this is the first time that Utahns can enjoy a full day of international rugby of this caliber. Tickets will be available for the full day at various prices, starting at $15 for general admission, $40 for premier seating and a $70 ticket that gives spectators the VIP treatment.

Short said the event will have a Fourth of July tournament festival-like atmosphere, but will have a professional feel with scoreboards and commentators and other touches. He added that USA Rugby will be watching Utah that day. Much smaller scale rugby exhibitions in the state have been extremely successful and Utah may soon be host to a whole lot more games.

"We needs to get people out," Short said. "They’re watching us. If we can produce a good event, we’ll have more rugby coming here. We just need to sell the tickets."

For more information on youth teams or the international games, call short at (801) 824-1124. "Forever Strong" is showing at movie theaters nationwide.


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