On the field, they’re hard-nosed rivals who won’t hesitate to bloody each other up a bit.
But as soon as the game ends and the beer starts flowing, stars of the Alaska rugby world are quick to give the other a slap on the back and a high-five.
“It’s a war on the field, but it’s all friendly off it,” explained Anchorage’s Tyler Jeffres.
That’s the attractive nature of the Between the Tides Dipfest Rugby 10s tournament, which hosted its eighth annual event Saturday at the Spur View field in Kenai.
The unique tournament has gained traction over the years since its inaugural event, and for the first time this weekend, hosted all 12 Alaska clubs.
The tournament is traditionally played during the middle of dipnetting season on the mouth of the Kenai, and instead of the usual goalposts on either end of the field, the teams use dipnets buried in the dirt.
Jeffres, 30, has trained and competed with the Anchorage Boretide for eight years, and mingled with the rest of a vibrant crowd soaking up the suns rays on a warm summer day in Kenai.
The Alaska Rugby Union schedules tournaments in Alaska throughout the year, but this weekend is the one that belongs to the peninsula. Since its inception, the tournament has gathered momentum and popularity by bringing in the state’s best teams. Saturday, the crowd of spectators and players swamped the sidelines of the natural grass field in Kenai in a Woodstock-esque celebration of a long held tradition.
Host squad Kenai River Wolfpack won the tournament in 2015, and got to keep the traveling trophy that sat in the Back Door Lounge for a full year. Kenai team coach Dan Balmer, who organizes much of the club events and practices, said new players every year have shown up wanting to know what the fuss is about.
“Everyone says this is the highlight of their summer,” Balmer said. “They come out and camp and fish, and the camaraderie of the teams and hanging out … it’s all a tight-knit group.”
Ten of the 12 teams that made the trip down to the Kenai this weekend hailed from Anchorage — the Turnagain Boretide, JBER Arctic Legion, Manu Bears, Bird Creek Barbarians, 907 Brothers and the Misfits, as well as four all-female teams in the Foxes, Lynx, Anchortown and the Aurora Rams.
The Fairbanks SunDawgs joined the Kenai River Wolfpack as the lone non-Anchorage clubs, and the hometown Wolfpack made sure everyone felt welcome and comfortable.
The event typically draws some international flavor as well due to clubs bringing in outside members, and this year was no different.
England’s Ronan Jones was one of the international players making his first foray into Alaska rugby. Jones is visiting Anchorage this summer out of Birmingham, England, on a rugby internship program with club Boretide. The 23-year-old Jones said rugby ranks only below soccer in popularity in his home country, and since he has played the sport since age 10, he knows a thing or two about it.
“It’s a bit more social here,” Jones explained. “Everyone’s more friendly with each other.”
Jones said he’s spent his summer doing everything Alaskan he can think of. Fishing, camping, just being outside. And of course, playing rugby.
“I’ve always wanted to come out to Alaska and see what there is to see,” Jones said.
And it’s not just the fresh faces that turn out. Seasoned locals return each summer to play hard rugby and meet the newer players. Kenai Wolfpack player Victor Rodriguez has played rugby in Kenai for almost five years as a compliment to his mixed martial arts training, and said rugby has been a helpful side sport to his MMA training.
“I’m into it big now, and Dan helped me get into it a lot,” Rodriguez said. “I just use my speed on offense and work the angles on defense.”
Rodriguez, 25, has lived in Soldotna most of his life, and MMA has been his calling. Rodriguez has built up an 11-2 record fighting in Alaska, including a 2-1 mark in professional fights in Anchorage and Fairbanks.
The fighting made for a natural transition to rugby, which can be a rough sport on field.
However, while it appears that way, players always caution that the sport teaches valuable lessons in tackling, and how to properly make a tackle without injury. Rodriguez said that sort of intense atmosphere is what attracted him to the club initially, and keeps the tournament running each year.