The place to be for fast and furious pigskin action on Sundays is the local watering hole.
The place to be for fast and furious pigskin action on Tuesdays is the Soldotna Prep gymnasium.
While the NFL season winds down, the rugby season on the central Kenai Peninsula has become a year-round sport. For any sporting enthusiast searching for an easy introduction to the sport that has seen decades of dominance on the sporting headlines in Europe and South Africa, the place to find it is in Soldotna.
A small group met Tuesday at 7 p.m. with members of the Kenai River Wolfpack Rugby team, which helped introduce rugby to the rookies in the opening session of the year. The only variance to the real game was the players used flags tied around their waists, hung there for “tacklers” to rip off, instead of full body tackles.
With current members Dan Balmer and Brian Johnson heading up the meeting at Soldotna Prep, all plan on coming back for seconds. Reasons to show up in the first place varied, but almost all came down to one answer.
“I just wanted to try something new and stay active,” said AnnMarie Rudstrom, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother from Soldotna. “My family and I like to cross-country ski, but it’s been a bad few winters for that. I also do it just to get out of the house.”
Rudstrom was joined by four other flag rugby novices Tuesday night, which went off without a hitch.
The Wolfpack, a local team that stages competitions — including the “Between the Tides” tournament in midsummer that utilizes real dipnets for scoring poles — practices outside until the snow arrives.
Johnson, 31, plays as a “lock,” the name for a position player who essentially serves as a forward. Johnson has been actively involved with the Wolfpack for nearly seven years.
“I didn’t know about rugby until (Wolfpack player) Fred (Koski) invited me out for a game of backyard rugby,” Johnson said. “It pretty much hooked me there.”
Koski, a bald, bearded man that could double as a football lineman, is a clear leader of the Wolfpack. Johnson said his initial interest, sparked by Koski, has helped him stay active even in the long winters of Alaska. Tuesday’s session with new players helped to break a long dry spell for him getting out with teammates or other players.
“This is the longest stint we’ve had without it,” he said.
After a short introduction to the game, Johnson and Balmer had the small group practice ball control by tossing the football-shaped rugby ball around in a circle. The group then progressed to passing drills by running around the circle, one at a time, and tossing it to each person in precise motions in what looked like a cross between the “hot potato” and “duck, duck, goose” games of childhood.
From there, the Wolfpack members positioned the group in a staggered line and practiced making passes while running down the length of the gym. Once that tactic was taught, it was time for some real game action.
Tony Gorman, a 33-year-old Kenai resident that works as general manager at the KDLL radio station, said he grew up competing in the typical sports that many high schools across the country offer, such as basketball, football, soccer and volleyball. After making the move to Alaska, the Mississippi native said he found it increasingly difficult to stay active, especially in the winter months.
“I go to the gym and do cardio and everything, but I wanted to try something out of conventional sports,” Gorman said.
Gorman resembles the build of typical rugby players — big and tall — but said watching the international level of the sport on TV and actually getting in on the action are two different things. The key aspect of rugby that he enjoys is the flow of the game.
“It’s nonstop,” he said. “I’ve seen a few matches on TV, and it’s always go go go.”
Balmer, who described rugby to the group as a “mix between wrestling and soccer,” is a rabid Seattle sports fan, and mentioned that the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks often use rugby plays as a method to teach better tackling. Of course, rugby in America is far down the popularity rankings in comparison to NFL, which is king among sports households.
Which is why Tuesday’s session offered a rare opportunity for folks who are curious about the game get into the gym to see for themselves what it’s all about.
“I just knew that it was similar to football, and I have more and more friends that are playing down in the states,” Rudstrom said. “I like to stay physically active, change it up. I got to keep my brain moving and my body moving.”
For those interested in joining, sessions are cheap — just $2 for two hours of flag rugby — and the group meets every Tuesday at 7 p.m.