The Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds is a field of dreams for the game in Anchorage, complete with a manicured pitch, mountain backdrop, ornate clubhouse and guest cabins.
So when traveling teams play there, then come to Kenai for the Kenai Dipnet Fest Rugby 10s Tournament, there’s no comparison, right?
A couple of traveling players at Saturday’s tournament, which featured six men’s teams and three women’s teams for a total of over 150 players, would beg to differ.
The tournament is put on by the Kenai River Wolfpack Rugby Club at the fields behind The Back Door Lounge in Kenai.
“This is great, as well,” said Kylle Walkoski of Boise, Idaho. “We can stay at the park and play rugby all day.
“There’s a bar across the street and it’s only 500 feet to the river. This is just as good, it’s just different.”
Sitting in the sun on the bluff of the river, watching sockeye roll in the water below as the commercial fleet masses for its next voyage, as sport boats jockey for salmon farther up the river, and as seemingly all of Southcentral queues to toss a dipnet in the mouth of the river, one can see Walkoski’s point.
Xanthi Gerasimo brought a traveling team based in the Midwest up to Alaska for the second straight year. The squad played at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds both years, but they were not about to miss Dipnet Fest.
“This is super cool,” Gerasimo said. “That’s such a glamorous experience, all big and super fancy, but here the rugby is more fun.
“You’re kicking into dipnets and everyone is having a good time. There’s a lot of time to bond with the other teams and that’s nice.”
Dan Balmer, the Wolfpack’s president and tournament organizer, said the city of Kenai is great about letting the teams camp at the fields even during such a busy weekend.
With six teams from Anchorage, one from Fairbanks and the Midwest traveling side, most of the players stick around afterward because home is so far away.
“Everyone comes down, camps together and socializes,” Wolfpack player Dan Engstrom said. “That makes it a great traveling tournament.”
And that’s the reason Balmer said the tournament, which is now in its seventh year, continues to grow and has now drawn players from Outside for the second straight year.
The Wolfpack started in 2009, but quickly discovered it would be tough to draw enough numbers to travel to tournaments or compete in a league.
So Dipnet Fest became the main event for the club. Because the team gets so few games, being competitive can be tough, but the Wolfpack did start off the day with a 19-17 victory over the Bird Creek Barbarians.
Four players — Walkoski, Jacob Hardy, Griffen Moeser and Zavior Cook — from Snake River Rugby of Boise joined up with the Wolfpack for the game.
The Wolfpack took an early 14-0 lead, but the Barbarians stormed back to cut it to 14-12.
Cook, who weighs in at over 300 pounds, got a pass from Balmer and ran over 40 meters for the winning try.
Engstrom played for the Barbarians for six years, even serving as coach and vice president last season before moving to the central peninsula in November.
“It’s awesome helping Kenai win their first game in a while,” he said. “It’s fun to play against my old team.
“I tried to hit them hard, but we’re all friends.”
Both Engstrom and Balmer anticipate the tournament will continue to grow.
“As we bring in more and more teams, the word spreads more and more about this tournament,” Engstrom said.
Take Walkoski and Gerasimo.
Last year when Gerasimo was here, she called it a bucket list trip and hoped she would be back sometime.
But Alaska proved so alluring sometime became next year.
The state again did not disappoint with sea kayaking, ziplining, a black bear sighting at Eklutna and a rainy trip to Denali National Park.
Gerasimo, who is from Menomonie, Wisconsin, said it’s tough for clubs to get enough numbers for an Alaska trip, but there is no excuse for touring sides.
“They’d be crazy not to, especially a touring side,” she said of the Alaska trip.
“For a lot of us, it’s our first time to Alaska,” he said. “It’s been a blast.
“The weather is great and we’ve met all these different rugby clubs. We’ve also done rafting, and river and deep-sea fishing.”
Balmer, who mentioned the Wolfpack are always looking for new players, said the club is happy to have found its niche as hosts of the tournament.
“We don’t travel much and we’re not in a league, but everyone we talk to says their favorite tournament is to come to Kenai,” he said.
Kenai Dipnet Fest Rugby 10s Tournament
Men’s championship — Arctic Lions 10, Manu Bears 0
Other results — Kenai River Wolfpack 19, Barbos 17; Arctic Legion 24, Turnagain Bore Tide 0; T.I.T.S. 35, Arctic Foxes 5; Manu Bears 14, Fairbanks Sun Dawgs 10; Arctic Legion 33, Kenai River Wolfpack 0; T.I.T.S. 42, Anchortown 5; Manu Bears 38, Bird Creek Barbarians 7; Fairbanks Sun Dawgs def. Turnagain Bore Tide; Anchortown 20, Arctic Foxes 19; Fairbanks Sun Dawgs 33, Kenai River Wolfpack 7; Manu Bears 40, Turnagain Bore Tide 7; Arctic Legion 27, Bird Creek Barbarians 0; T.I.T.S. defeated Alaska Selects.