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Into the Scrum

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.

By the '90s, that bar scene was fizzling due to competition from Denver and what Bonniwell describes as a city government that was anti-alcohol, anti-young-people and anti-business. In 1998, when Mayor Joe Rice proposed restrictions on strip clubs that would have hurt Shotgun Willie's, Bonniwell, Dunafon and Matthews formed a political group called the Tea Party to oppose the move and elect like-minded businesspeople to city council. Though it's been accused of cronyism and questionable contracts, Bonniwell says the Tea Party was really about bringing the business community and residents together for the mutual benefit of the city ("The Glendale T&A Party" January 20, 2000). Today the party no longer exists, because it quashed all opposition. "Since we're all working on the same mission, we don't need labels to identify Crips and Bloods," Bonniwell says.

That mission is rugby. The plan grew out of a National Civic League forum held five years ago, during which residents discussed Glendale's identity. It had been a dairy farm back in the day. It had been a young bar town. What was it now? What it wasn't, residents agreed, was a place with any sense of community. There were no parks, no open space, no place to gather on a Saturday afternoon like they used to at the old softball fields by city hall.

"So that's when everybody sat around -- We're all friends; it's a small town. We're always at Bull & Bush or Shotgun Willie's or someplace -- to say 'How do we create a community? We need a meeting place. We need a sport,'" Bonniwell says. "We threw out soccer, but everybody plays soccer. There's nothing distinctive. We looked at Irish hurling and Australian rules football, but who would we play?"

Then somebody said, "I played rugby. What do you think of rugby?"

They'd found their niche -- and not only because the sport, like Glendale, goes best with beer and bravado. Rugby, played in more than 100 countries, reflects Glendale's diversity, with residents speaking nineteen different languages. "The sport itself is very physical, but after the game, you all go to the same bar together," Bonniwell says. "There's a wonderful socializing element that you really don't have in American football. You kill each other on the field, and afterward, everybody feels like, 'Okay, we had a good match, and now let's go get a beer.' So we thought that would be a wonderful way to get some role models for the kids, people they can look up to other than just drug dealers."

At that time, Ed Thomas had recently been term-limited out of the Denver City Council and was working as a lobbyist for Glendale in the town's dealings with Denver. The retired police officer had been a Denver Barbarian thirty years earlier, and he was interested in helping bring rugby to Glendale and building a stadium.

"I think they just figured out this would be something that would put this tiny little place on the map," he says. "It's a situation where people are going to look at this and say, 'Why didn't I think of that?' It's going to be one hell of an interesting time, so that's why I got involved. It's not just that they're doing something that's never been done before; they're doing it right. They've got a coach that's one of the most famous rugby players ever. I was impressed with how the hell they found this guy."

Glendale didn't have to look far to find the former New Zealand All Black Geoff Old. After coaching the Dutch national team, he became the technical director for Dutch rugby. In 2000, he came to Colorado to be USA Rugby's technical director. At that time, Dunafon was manager of the USA Under 19 team, Bullock was the team's head coach, and Matthews's son was a player. That was the year the team was able to travel to three overseas tournaments, in part thanks to money raised through Dunafon's own non-profit USA International Youth Rugby Foundation. (According to Rugby Magazine, Dunafon was subsequently asked to leave his position at USA Rugby in November 2001 over questions concerning that fundraising.)

Old left USA Rugby around the same time and went to work for Dunafon's company, KUDU Rugby, which sells uniforms and holds youth camps. Today Old is president of KUDU Rugby, and he coaches in Glendale as a volunteer. Dunafon would not comment for this story, but Bonniwell says that KUDU Rugby won't get any city contracts. The company won't even donate uniforms to Glendale for fear of how the arrangement might be perceived, he says.

While Old started playing rugby at age five and still eats, sleeps and thinks rugby, Bullock is an educator first and foremost. He's been a coach for thirty years -- football, basketball and rugby -- and a high school chemistry teacher longer than that. Most recently, he was the principal at Battle Mountain High School, a job he left in February 2005 to become Glendale's rugby director, fire marshal and head of facilities and recreation.

"The thing that makes [rugby] unique, if you have enough players for two teams, you run two teams," Bullock says. "If you have enough players for four teams, you run four teams. You don't say, 'You're cut' or 'You can't play.' That's different than playing a lot of American sports. The way that we coach, Geoff Old and I, it's about decision-making and leadership. Players have to develop that, which is a life skill, particularly when you're working with youth. There's some important life lessons you can teach players."

As a Harlequin Olde Girl, Jaime Lange plays for Glendale now, as well as the USA Under 23 team. She recently earned a bachelor's degree in elementary ed, but she's working odd jobs so that she has time for rugby and to get to the World Cup. "I think it's going to make Colorado a rugby powerhouse," she says of the Glendale Initiative. "Bullock's a great coach. He's probably the best in the nation. He has a game plan that if you can execute it correctly, it's money. You will win every game. He's flawless.

"Bullock's a character, though, because he'll be super-intense," she adds.

On a Thursday evening at Mir Park, an area Glendale acquired as part of its effort to create open space, the men's and women's practices weave in and out of each other. A single stadium light, powered by a loud, pungent generator, keeps a ball from being swallowed into darkness as it's passed between slender running shadows with ponytails. "You've got to stick to the play you call or you're going to get the shit kicked out of you," Bullock calls out to a rugger who just second-guessed herself. A few minutes later, he's advising his team to do whatever it takes to steal possession, including twisting fingers back.

When it's time to practice the scrum, eight girls line up: three, then four, then one. They crouch, hugging their arms around each other's shoulders and waists. They'll have to push the weight of all their other teammates, who are piled onto a rolling metal platform called a scrum machine. With their butts in the air, the women grunt in unison as they try to inch forward. Nothing happens.

"Patience," Bullock says. "Get your feet in."

They try again, bending even lower this time, and are able to move a few feet forward.

"Nice job, ladies!" the other women cheer.

"Why did that work?" Bullock asks the red-faced women as they rise to catch their collective breath before he makes them get down again.


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