Rugby squad hoping for Fourth of July fireworks
"It’s a pride thing." That’s what 45-year-old Robert Lopez calls the annual Fourth of July rugby match held at City Park for the last four decades.
Having played in the match since 1986, Lopez, a member of the Park City Haggis Rugby Club, said there is a fine line between celebrating America’s independence and wanting to destroy the opponent. According to Lopez, Park City Haggis hasn’t lost a Fourth of July match since 2006, when the club was officially formed.
"I think anybody who’s anybody wants to play in this game out of all the games in the year," he said. "We’re known for dominating on our home field.
"If you’re not getting on the pitch to contribute, then you better get off."
The annual Fourth of July match has been a staple of Summit County’s July 4 celebration since 1972, and Lopez said four decades worth of rugby has a special place in his heart — and a lot of that is due to the way the match and game have evolved in recent years.
"I think the rugby has gotten a lot better," he said. "It’s a lot more refined; not that there weren’t great teams in the past, but rugby is so much bigger now. That’s why I still play, because I want to be part of it."
Starting at 10 this morning, the pitch at City Park will be chock-full of rugby players from across the state as well as the Yeti Rexburg Rugby team, based out of Rexburg, Idaho. Lopez said there will be a number of 7-on-7 matches early in the morning with various teams from the Salt Lake Valley participating. At 11 a.m., the UVU Alumni squad will take on United, a team from Lehi.
The main event, pitting Park City Haggis against the Yeti, is slated to begin at 1 p.m. But unlike last year’s 75-19 romp over UVU, Lopez expects the Yeti to challenge the five-year-long win streak.
"Last year we had a lot of guys pumped up," he said. "I think this year we’ll be a little more evened out. We’re both old and young, and we’re only getting younger."
In a match against the Yeti in October, Lopez blew out his Achilles tendon, but he has rehabbed to be able to get back into this game.
"Hopefully it’s not an omen," he said, laughing.
According to Park City Haggis head coach Jason Hoke, who has been part of rugby in Park City for the past 10 years, the Yeti are young and aggressive.
"When you’re that young, you don’t mind putting your body on the line every play," he said. "They play with abandon. We have to have our older heads calm everyone down, and have our younger guys go flying into stuff."
Hoke, who was once part of the Park City Muckers rugby club, was later a player-coach with the Haggis before becoming the full-time head coach. Now in his second year at the helm, Hoke said he misses lacing up his boots, but coaching the Fourth of July match is almost as much fun.
"I still play throughout the year, but it takes somebody to keep it all together on the Fourth; we have five games and many people playing during the day," he said. "I have to focus more on that."
Hoke credited the success of the prestigious and popular match mainly to its fervent fan base that makes a point to cheer on the home team every July 4 afternoon.
"The tradition in Park City is what means the most," he said. "You see everyone at the park, even if they may have moved out of town or not. This is the one day of the year you see everyone you see every day or every five years.
"The crowd is one of a kind in Utah for rugby — the number of the crowd, those who are knowledgeable about the club and the game — it’s a pretty cool deal all the way around."
Following the Park City Haggis’ showdown against the Yeti, there will be, according to Lopez and Hoke, an old boys’ match for men over 35 with rugby experience.
"It’s open to anyone that’s played before," Hoke explained. "And bring your boots."
While talking about the old boys’ game, Lopez recalled facing off against Park City rugby staple Jack Walzer in the 1980s, and the rivalries that were born on the pitch at City Park.
Then Lopez said that Walzer’s son, Bridger, who plays with the University of Utah, will be part of the Park City Haggis squad that looks to extend the Fourth of July fireworks this afternoon.
"I see how big the game has gotten and how the city has adopted it as part of the Fourth of July," he said. "It’s a pride thing for us."
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