What do you get when you combine several of the top rugby teams from around the state with the annual dip netting scene on the mouth of the Kenai River?
You get a mix of rivalries, friendships, testosterone, adrenaline, fish, beer and odd traditions.
The annual “Between the Tides” Dipfest Rugby 10s tournament Saturday at the Spur View Field in Kenai provided the action, and the nearby bluff overlooking the mouth of the Kenai River — chock full of dip-netters — provided the setting.
Nestled in between the bluff and the Back Door lounge, a sponsor of the event where the post-tournament social event is held, the 10s tournament (meaning teams of 10) has given the sport of rugby better exposure on the Kenai Peninsula with help from the massive Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds in Anchorage.
The quirkiness of Saturday’s tournament, however, is where the fun begins.
With a healthy breeze keeping the netting out at full song from the two dip net goalposts on either end of the natural grass field, eight men’s and women’s teams from around the state converged to play the sport that inspired the American game of football.
“It’s just awesome,” said Ryan Stark, a forward on the Turnagain Boretide. “It’s a purely social event, it’s great.”
Stark made his first foray to the Peninsula for this tournament, as many of the members of Boretide have done. The club itself is barely a year old, but many of the players hold either collegiate or international experience, coming from such schools as the University of Massachusetts and Arkansas, and countries such as Ireland, South Africa and even Chile.
Stark said he finds the most enjoyment out of the relationships he builds with rival players, adding that the “Between the Tides” tourney emphasizes a “third half,” referring to the after-hours social gathering at the Back Door. Many players also use the weekend to take advantage of the dip netting opportunities on the river.
“It’s funny how on the field, you can totally just want to kill these guys, but off the field we’re great friends,” Stark said.
Boretide opened Saturday with a 20-minute contest against the local team, the Kenai River Wolfpack. Boretide, undefeated thus far in 2015, cruised to a dominating victory in the first game in the round-robin format.
To the untrained eye, rugby appears similar in play to American football, with the key exceptions being play continues even when the ballhandler is tackled, and passes are always either lateral or backward attempts. Players themselves often describe it as a mix between football and soccer.
As hosts of the tournament, the Wolfpack welcomed the Bird Creek Barbarians, JBER Arctic Legion, Turnagain Boretide and Fairbanks SunDawgs among men’s teams, and the Anchorage Foxes, Fairbanks Ravens and the Last Frontier Lynx on the women’s side.
One of the eye-catching displays of the tournament is the use of tall, metal dip netting poles that serve as goal posts on both ends of the field. A temporary fixture, the four nets were erected earlier Saturday morning, and are used solely for the tournament.
And, since the nets weren’t being used to catch fish, it was the rugby ball that was being caught. In the first game of the day between the Wolfpack and the Boretide, an extra two-point kick landed perfectly inside the hoop and into the netting, leading spectators to jokingly question whether an additional extra point would be given.
One of the new additions this year was the winner’s trophy, a heavy silver chalice constructed by Scott Hammond of Metal Magic. The trophy was proudly displayed at the Kenai River Wolfpack camp at the south end of the field.
Fred Koski, a Soldotna player for the Wolfpack, is a hulking mass of a man with a shaven head and long, dark beard. Having played high school rugby in Tacoma, Washington, and as a former member of the United States Air Force, Koski is naturally a leader on the team.
“The Anchorage union has tournaments up there, and we thought it’d be nice to attract teams from up there,” Koski said. “We timed it around dip net season so these guys would have a better excuse to come down, and it’s been great.”
Koski has competed all four years in the Kenai tournament. Koski said it has been exciting to see the number of interested players grow every year.
“There are pretty healthy basketball and soccer communities around here, so we’d like to incorporate rugby as another option,” Koski said.
Seth Oliver of the University of Massachusetts is a team captain on Boretide, and said the club organized last year after a “Rugby 101” class brought in a lot of players not only from around the state, but from the Lower 48 as well.
“A bunch of folks came in, and it’s grown a ton from there,” Oliver said.
Oliver also gave credit to Sean Crimmins, a player with the Mystic River Rugby Club in Malden, Massachusetts, that has helped pique interest in the Anchorage area.
Both Oliver and Stark said that after the city of Anchorage gave the Boretide team permission to practice on the Delaney park strip in midtown Anchorage, the interest level jumped to the point in which local passersby were stopping to ask what they were doing, and subsequently joining in on practice.