The Millennium Square rugby pitch used for the Kenai Dipnet Fest Rugby 10’s Tourney, hosted by Kenai Wolfpack, is a short walk from three things.
First is the Kenai bluff and its magnificent view of the studious dip netters, the artful mouth of the Kenai River and the looming Chigmit Mountains beyond.
Second is the Back Door Lounge.
Third is a field of tents.
“It’s a great atmosphere,” said Eagle River’s Kevin Hein, 26, of the JBER Arctic Legion Military Rugby Club. “I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday afternoon.”
With so many treats available on three sides of the pitch, one might think the rugby tournament could get lost in the mix.
Talk with players like Hein, though, and it’s apparent most of the action at the 9th annual event was on the field.
The Kenai Dipnet Fest is a highly social event that allows players to join other teams, and Hein’s intent was to play with as many teams and in as many games as possible.
“I do this every tournament,” he said. “Everyone else finds it very weird.
“It’s a social tournament. It’s not competitive or for prize money. It’s for the love of the game, so I play as much as possible.”
Hein, originally from Chicago, started playing rugby seven years ago at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. He said the sport perfectly fits his love of team sports and tough competition.
“You need to expend everything you’ve got,” Hein said. “It takes the whole team.
“In 15’s, there’s no Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. It takes everybody and that takes so much out of you.”
That’s why Hein plays every game he can at social tournaments. When the tournaments get more serious, he said he’ll be in condition for that.
“Recovery is very important,” Hein said.
He recovers with ice baths, massage, a weekly trip to the chiropractor and by smoking marijuana.
“It’s all about getting as many minutes as possible,” he said.
Taku Ngwenya, 32, of Dallas agrees. He also was trying to play in every game he could at the tournament.
Rugby has always played a special role in Ngwenya’s life because his father is from South Africa. The 1995 Rugby World Cup was held in South Africa and Nelson Mandela used the event, which South Africa won, as a major step in reconciliation between white and black South Africans.
“Since then, I’ve been devoted to rugby,” Ngwenya said.
Ngwenya played in three World Cups for the USA Eagles, the national team. After playing in the World Cup in 2007, he went to play professionally in France and returned and retired about six months ago. He came to Alaska for a tournament at the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds in Anchorage last weekend and has enjoyed taking in the splendors of Alaska, as well as the growth of rugby.
“The growth is amazing,” he said, marveling at the 10 teams that showed up for a tournament in a small town in Alaska. “When I left for France, it was nothing like this.
“I made a career of this. Hopefully, some of these kids can do the same.”
It may be a little late for Soldotna’s Jason Fitzgerald, 40, to make a career of rugby, but his story does show that starting the sport late works.
Fitzgerald, who has retired from the military, got started in the game four years ago when his son Deagan, now 11, joined a touch league.
Fitzgerald got hooked on the game fast and joined the Marine Corps team. Eventually, he played in three tournaments with the Stars Rugby 7s.
“There are times in other sports where people’s anger gets the better of them,” Fitzgerald said. “Out here on the pitch, everybody is battling hard with big hits, but you’re able to finish the game and have a beer together.”
Fitzgerald’s presence in the center of the pitch was important as the Wolfpack pulled off a big 17-5 win over the Bird Creek Barbarians on Saturday.
Dan Balmer, president of the Wolfpack, said the last victory for his club was two years ago, but that came with three really good players from another team helping out.
The Wolfpack are traditionally undermanned — Saturday they had just 11 players — but they didn’t use players from other teams in the victory over the Barbarians.
Ben Mohr of Soldotna had two tries in the victory, while Austin Danielson had one. Both are former Barbarians players.
The men’s title match saw the Manu Bears defeat Arctic Legion 21-0. Both Arctic Legion and Manu Bears had won two tourney titles coming into this year, so Manu now has the most titles in tourney history.
On the women’s side, the Touring in Training Side from the Midwest also picked up a third tournament title by defeating the Fairbanks Ravens. The Touring in Training Side has come up for three of the four years the women’s tournament has been held.