Summit ‘Rugby’ County, USA: Home to the Blue Goose, Renegades and Summit Tigers rugby clubs | SummitDaily.com

Summit ‘Rugby’ County, USA: Home to the Blue Goose, Renegades and Summit Tigers rugby clubs

The Gentlemen of the Blue Goose take very few things seriously. The club is one of them. Beer is another.

On a chilly May afternoon, a small group of veteran and untested players with the storied Breckenridge adult rugby club were practicing at Carter Park. The start of the season was still a few weeks away at that point, but there was plenty of work to be done, like bringing rugby newcomer Mike Williams up to speed.

Williams, a new addition to Lake Dillon Fire District had never been on a rugby pitch before joining up with the Gentlemen (or simply Goose, as the guys are more likely to say). He'd seen the game in college and liked what he saw, but he never had a chance to get his jersey dirty in a scrum, or even run formations with other rugby players.

That all changed when Williams stopped by his first Goose practice earlier this spring. There he met Scott Snook, club treasurer, and Kevin Gerbes, club president. He also met with guys like Dan Chapman, who was born in Australia and moved to Summit County at 10 years old, and Alex Rhodes, another transplant from overseas who now lives in Breckenridge.

"We have guys from England who have played since 6 years old and guys who have never played," Snook told me after practice when the Goose were having beers and a slice at Northside in Breckenridge, one of the team's sponsors. "People get intimidated because it's rugby, but we'll take anyone."

Hub in the High Country

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Across the United States, rugby is hardly as popular with kids or adults as football, soccer and basketball, but in Summit County and neighboring mountain towns — where international residents tend to congregate — it's always had a strong presence. Take the Goose for example: The club has been around since at least the '80s, and probably earlier, Gerbes said. Team photos from 30 or 40 years ago line the walls at Fatty's Pizzeria, and when the club plays at home, the games tend to draw at least one or two club alumni.

"It's funny — everywhere you go you run into someone who used to go to the games or used to play," Gerbes said. "You have landlords, property managers — even the guy who used to print the shirts for the Goose 40 years ago. You can't go anywhere in Breckenridge without running into someone who knows the Goose."

Gerbes story is pretty typical for the Goose. He was recruited to play football by Iona College in New York, but when he couldn't stand the coach and the program, he met a few guys with the school's club rugby program. One game later, he was hooked.

"They asked, 'Do you like to hit people? Do you like beer? Do you like girls?'" Gerbes said of his introduction to the sport. "And I was like, 'Sign me up.'"

Truth is, with the exception of a few international players every season, hardly anyone on the team played rugby until they were adults, and a good number didn't play at all until joining the team. Others, like Chapman, came to fall in love with the sport because of the brotherhood — literally.

"My brother was a big reason to get into it," said Chapman, who's older brother, Cameron, convinced him to play in 2008 when the youngster was in high school. "I played my first game and was hooked. Obviously there's an element of physicality I like, but there's also a brotherhood to it, a fraternity. Once you play a single game of rugby with guys you're part of the community."

Goose-in-training

Talk to enough rugby players — new and seasoned, young and old — and they'll talk about the camaraderie of the sport. Between beers, someone at Northside mentioned an old rugby adage: "Rugby players are gentlemen playing a hooligan sport, and soccer players are hooligans playing a gentleman's sport." Rugby might look fast and hectic and brutal, Chapman said, but with time and proper training it's an intricate battle between families.

"The whole family thing is thrown around a lot with sports teams, but it really does happen with rugby," said Karl Barth, head coach for the Summit Tigers girls club rugby team. And Barth would know: Since helping a duo of students launch the high school-level club in 1997, the girls team has won a slew of state championships, including nine consecutive titles, and has sent dozens of players to NCAA programs across the nation.

But how? How did a small mountain community of fewer than 30,000 full-time residents become such a hotbed for rugby, especially girls rugby? Barth doesn't have the answer, but he has three good guesses. The first is obvious: girls don't have other options for contact sports, save hockey, and that always draws a small number of the 50 or more who try out every season. The second and third are just as obvious, but hard to pin down.

"They have a lot of success in the win-loss column, and there are a lot of people who want to be part of that," Barth said. "That gets people in the door, but the culture our girls have of striving for excellence — of being able to compete, to compete with each other and still work together as a unit — is what keeps our kids around."

A high school-level boys club hasn't been so lucky. That team has been through three iterations over the years, including a short-lived team from 1997-98, and another brief stretch in the early 2000s. Those programs still managed to produce three national-level players, but between practice facilities (there weren't any) and coaches (they didn't stay long), the teams didn't have staying power.

But maybe the third time is the charm. The latest boys club, the Summit Renegades, was founded last season by a small group of students and a former Goose coach, Peter Clarke. They went winless that first year and then made the postseason this year, drawing just enough players to field a 15-man team.

Life seems simple now, but Barth remembers how difficult it was to field a girls team in the early years. Dozens of elements must come together for a club to flourish, and he's confident the Renegades have what it takes to survive.

"Other sports have the advantage of just being there as American sports," Barth said. "But for the girls, especially those pioneer girls back in the day — the ones scraping together a team and practice space — it's been cool to see what they started."

This season, the Goose club is in a similar position. The team doesn't have enough guys committed to field a full 15s team, and the start of the season is just two short weekends away. But Gerbes and crew will still be on the pitch at Carter Park, rain or shine, playing a sport they've come to love.

"I love the sport, personally," Gerbes said. "It fuels my fire."

Join the Gentlemen

The rugby season is nearly here and the Gentlemen of the Blue Goose — the official name for Summit County’s adult rugby club — is in need of a few good men.

Stop by practice on Mondays and Wednesdays from 6-7:30 p.m. to meet the guys, learn some skills, break some tackles and cap it all off with a beer or two. A taste test is free and open to anyone, ages 16 years and older. No playing experience required.

If you want to join, club dues are minimal (around $20). They buy you socks and pants in the club’s signature blue, plus player’s insurance for the games. Call club president Kevin Gerbes at 970-333-1696 with questions.

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2017 Blue Goose Rugby schedule

June 10 — vs. Steamboat Springs, Carter Park

June 17 — vs. Vail, Carter Park

June 24 — at Aspen, location TBD

July 8 — Cow Pie Tournament, Steamboat Springs

July 15 — vs. Grand Junction, Carter Park

July 22 — at Glenwood Springs, location TBD

July 29 — Ski Town Rugby Tournament, location TBD

Aug. 5 — vs. Gunnison, Carter Park

Note: This schedule is tentative and can change. Check the club Facebook page for more info by searching “Gentlemen of the Blue Goose.”