Cowpie Classic: A party both on and off the field

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— On Saturday, July 13, 2002, the Steamboat Springs Rugby Football Club won a Cowpie Classic game for the first time in, well, no one was for certain, but it had to be something like six years, so there was plenty of cause for celebration.

Like rugby players need an excuse to party.

"It's so fun," Chris McConnell said regarding his sport. "Now we just drink beer and have fun with the guys."

Born in 1923 in England, rugby is a descendent of soccer and a relative of American football. Originally created for the upper class Englishman, rugby is often referred to as a gentlemen's sport. Players call the official Sir, wear polo shirts and end each match with a huddle and a chant of "Hip, Hip, Hooray!" for the officials and opposing team.

The game, however, is a different story.

The only protective gear worn is a mouthpiece. Some players choose to tape their ears down to secure them during scrums. Others opt for what looks like an old-school football helmet.

Rugby is like soccer but a player can use his or her hands. It's like American football without the forward pass and pads. It's popular around the world, and addicting once it is played, according to McConnell.

"I've been trying to quit for years," he said.

Rugby has its own distinct culture witnessed in language a score is called a try even if successful song and celebration. And its rich tradition spans the globe.

Sean Claussen, 17, is the youngest member of Steamboat's club. He is currently visiting his mother but lives with his father in Jakarta, Indonesia, where he plays on the high school rugby team. The rules are the same, before and after the match.

"We go to someone's house," Claussen said. "Everyone parties. It's part of the game."

Steamboat has hosted the Cowpie Classic for 21 years. For the first 18 years it was the best team in the mountains, but things started to change in 1993. The club wasn't as successful and those involved continued to age.

Mark Hermacinski sees things improving, however. Now, the team is younger, more athletic and more committed to playing quality rugby.

"They are showing up to practice, which is key," Hermacinski said. "They are motivated to make road trips. We're starting to build on that."

The evidence came in Saturday's 3-0 victory over Fort Collins in Steamboat's opening match of its own tournament.

It appeared as if neither team wanted to tally points, as both failed to capitalize on repeated opportunities in the first and second halves. However, with less than two minutes to go, Nick Wearsch converted a penalty kick, scoring the game's only three points and giving Steamboat the win.

In Steamboat's second match of the afternoon against a smorgasbord of players from Fort Collins, Miami of Ohio and past Steamboat teams, more points were recorded as both teams exchanged tries.

In the first half, Grant Bartlett touched the rugby football down across the try-line for five points and Wearsch converted the subsequent kick to put Steamboat on top 7-5.

Eric Dorris, a Steamboat resident playing for the smorgasbord team, converted a kick after his try to put his team back ahead 12-7.

Hermacinski answered with a try to tie but Steamboat was unable to convert the kick.

The score remained tied until the closing seconds of the second half when Steamboat's opposition crossed the try-line to add the five points that made the difference in the 17-12 final.

Despite the tackling and scrumming during the game, everyone's mood quickly turned jovial, as talk switched to what's on the schedule for later.

"The hometown team always buys the beer for everyone else," Hermacinski said.

Though Steamboat has no shot at playing for the cowpie trophy awarded to the winner of the Cowpie Classic, rugby fans or those curious about the sport are encouraged to come to the pitch at the Ski Town fields at 11 a.m. today to cheer on the semifinalists.

To reach Melinda Mawdsley call 871-4208

or e-mail mmawdsley@steamboatpilot.com

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