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Into the Scrum

Glendale is going from titty city to rugby town.

It's a sunny fall afternoon at the rugby pitch in Denver's Cook Park, and fans of the Denver Highlanders are restlessly watching their club fight a losing battle for possession of the ball. Shirtless twenty-somethings and their girlfriends stand on the sideline, sipping from cans of PBR and Bud Light.

"Hit him!"

"Fuck him up!"

"Break his nose! Maybe it'll look better!"

Their opposition is a brand-new team, just a month old. But the eight purple-clad Glendale Raptors bent into the scrum with arms intertwined become one cohesive force, easily hooking the ball with their feet and pushing their rivals right where they want them. Geoff Old, their towering 6'3" coach, calls out to them in his thick New Zealand accent without ever losing his cool. There's not a single wrinkle in his off-white slacks or neatly tucked button-down shirt. Old was once the star of the New Zealand All Blacks, the best team in rugby. Today he's the senior men's rugby coach for the City of Glendale, and he's making the Highlanders Rugby Football Club -- with a forty-year tradition in Denver -- look like the newbies in town. Luckily for the Highlanders, it's the B team that Glendale's stepping on.

At the west end of the pitch, far away from the beer-chugging masses, members of the Glendale High Commission on Rugby stand sipping champagne from crystal flutes. All rugby players at one time in their lives, the commissioners include Shotgun Willie's owner Debbie Matthews; Mathews's husband, city councilman Mike Dunafon; city attorney Chuck Bonniwell; and former Denver city councilman Ed Thomas. A cloud of cigar smoke encircles the group, which is dressed in black tie, while the sun setting behind them casts long shadows at their feet. They're expected at a fundraiser that evening, but they wouldn't miss watching the fruits of their labor kick some serious ass. They hope that if their plan comes together, this game will soon make a new name for titty city.

The Glendale Rugby Initiative began last year when the city council passed a resolution making rugby the town's official sport. It was a symbolic gesture -- one that would make Glendale stand out in rugby circles, because no other U.S. city had such a designation. The effort meant that the youth programs -- and the men's, women's and young-adult teams the city hoped to develop -- would have the support and the facilities of the city at their disposal rather than having to fend for themselves, as other clubs do. Those facilities are at the heart of Glendale's vision for rugby, one that comes in the form of a 3,000-seat stadium.

Glendale's very own stadium isn't just a pipe dream. The financing -- a $20.5 million certificate of participation that acts like a bond issue without the pesky need for voter approval -- was passed by the city council on November 15, 2005, and is paying for construction of the building plus an adjacent recreation center and the acquisition of land for open space. A team of architects is busy designing the pitch that will use the same surface as Invesco Field: natural Kentucky bluegrasses stabilized by a network of polypropylene fibers sewn every three-quarters of an inch. Plans for the recreation center include a weight room, a cardio room and locker rooms, as well as a clubhouse and convention-center-style meeting rooms. A half a block away, Glendale bought land from the St. Andrews seminary for a second regulation-sized rugby pitch and a half-sized artificial turf pitch.

Teams are coming together, too, with the first youth camp having been held last summer and the city having adopted the Harlequin Olde Girls as its women's team. The men who responded to an advertisement calling for players are now the Glendale Raptors. Meanwhile, Glendale's new director of rugby, Mark Bullock, who helped create the USA Under 19 national team in 1991 and coached it for ten years, is already fielding calls from ruggers around the world who want to play Glendale, train with Glendale or tourney in Glendale.

With USA Rugby based in Boulder and the Aspen Ruggerfest's reputation as the most elite tournament across the nation, Colorado could be considered the heart and soul of American rugby, though weak when compared to any of the dozens of countries where rugby is a religious obsession. Clubs such as the Denver Barbarians, the Gentlemen of Aspen and the Denver Highlanders have been around since the '60s, and all club play has been organized under the Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union since 1967. And although Glendale never had a team until now, it was still a part of that history -- as the place ruggers came to drink after their games and practices.

Glendale is a 355-acre island surrounded on all sides by Denver. About 4,500 people call it home, excluding those who've yet to realize they don't actually live in Denver. It boasts big-box retailers like SuperTarget, along with large hotels and office buildings, and is best known for its strip clubs. During its heyday as a nightlife hot spot in the '60s, '70s and '80s -- before LoDo -- bars such as the Bull & Bush Pub and the former Red Lion were popular hangouts with the rugby crowd.

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