By Seamas Mulvihill - December 16, 2019
Colorado has been a pioneering sports state since its inception. The Denver Broncos have been a staple of the state identity since their first game in 1960 with every game being sold out from 1970 on. From Colorado’s original hockey team, the Colorado Rockies that played from 1976-1982, to the creation of the two-time Stanley Cup winning Colorado Avalanche in 1995, we have a constant evolution of sports variety. With the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Rockies, Colorado Mammoth, Colorado Outlaws, and Colorado Rapids as well as DU, CU and CSU sports teams, Coloradans have a lot of pride and options in sports entertainment.
One thing many people new to Colorado may not be aware of is our state’s pioneering history of rugby. The thriving rugby culture is one of the best scenes in the country for competitive tournaments, competitive men’s leagues and Colorado’s Major League Rugby team the Colorado Raptors, who play in a state-of-the-art stadium in Glendale. The team was started by Colorado native and mayor of Glendale Mike Dunafon, who ran for governor of Colorado at one point and has created quite a legacy for himself as a businessman. Mike turned an island city with no significant development into an unconventional and highly lucrative business center for entertainment, commerce, real estate and one of the most unlikely places for a successful professional rugby team. This former Broncos player and rugby player had a vision and executed in a manor and location that few other states or people ever could, and it truly speaks to the spirit of Colorado development.
Infinity Park in Glendale and the Colorado rugby scene are by far not places purely for men. Infinity hosts some of the most competitive Women's 7’s and 15’s tournaments in the country. It is also home to the elite Merlins Women’s Rugby team and has often hosted games for the highly respected Women’s Black Ice team.
The roots of Colorado rugby began with the founding of the Denver Barbarians in 1967 as the first men’s club that recruited post collegiate rugby players and men from other sports to compete with teams around the region. This allowed new and experienced players to flock to Colorado and create a new scene inspiring new teams and tournaments to be created. Throughout the years the Barbarians have produced several American Eagles players and professional players. These men took a tremendous risk for a foreign and highly dangerous sport to take charge in the state with great success. Nothing is more Colorado than pioneering new high-risk games in a culture that had never had a significant scene in this global game. The risk paid off, as Glendale is known nationally as “Rugby town, USA.”
Shortly after the creation of the Barbarians, Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union President Terry Fleener and local aspen ski instructor Steve Sherlock created the world famous Aspen Ruggerfest. Ruggerfest had its first tournament in 1968, and continues to grow yearly. The tournament has evolved with highly competitive professional and men’s club players flying from all over the world to the tournament to play rugby, compete for a championship Mug and drink all of the beer in Aspen. The tournament has several age brackets and divisions with the Open division, College, Masters, 45’s, 50’s and over 55’s. Not many States have men in their late 50’s flocking to tackle one another in an aggressive manor for pride and a good time. The tournament has brought out former players from top global teams and American Eagles every year to enjoy one of the most iconic and beautiful fields sitting in the city of Aspen and overlooking the Rocky Mountains.
But Ruggerfest isn’t just a place for men’s rugby, some of the most elite women’s teams travel from all over the country to compete in the tournament and party even harder than the guys. 2019 led to great teams like the Salt Lake City Sister Wives showing up to play.
Second to the Aspen Ruggerfest in terms of magnitude is the Steamboat Cowpie Classic which was first hosted in 1974 after the creation of the Steamboat Rugby team in 1971. The tournament is known for its competitive nature and highly organized social events often including toga parties with teams coming from all over the rocky mountain region and southwest to play. The after parties are a blend of male and female teams coming together to celebrate Rugby Culture.
Currently Denver’s Senior Men’s club Rugby league consists of 18 teams most competing in multiple divisions ranging from D4 to D1. Many of these teams including the Queen City Rams, Harlequins and Boulder have been around since the 1960s and 1970s. Denver Men’s club scene is known for its highly competitive nature with a vibrant social scene and tight fraternal bond between players. Rugby players are a rare breed that will shake hands and drink beers together after getting in a fist fight or hard-hitting game on the field.
Why is this foreign sport of raw aggression and fraternal camaraderie finding such a successful home in a place like Colorado? Although rugby hails from Europe and is mainly played in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands its rough nature, high risks and gentlemanly respect are all aspects of True Colorado Culture and Character. Furthermore, with so many international players involved in Men’s Club Rugby in Colorado it really demonstrates what an accepting and open-minded place we are. Colorado is a special place because activities like this not only exist but thrive on every level. With 26 competitive High School teams, 9 College Club teams and various youth programs to groom future competitive players the sport has a serious future here.
Colorado is a state founded on cowboy ethics, grit and experiencing the great outdoors. Nothing could be a better example of these values than the hooligans game played by gentlemen of Rugby.