Vail Rugby Club celebrates 50th anniversary
Weekend was a salute to Vail's rich rugby tradition
On Aug. 6, past and present members of the Vail Rugby Club gathered on the iconic Ford Field pitch to celebrate its 50th anniversary with a match against the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby. The long weekend, which included a Thursday afternoon happy hour — “typical of any rugby event,” according to club chairman Bart Cuomo — a Friday golf outing and banquet and Saturday’s game and barbecue, celebrated the sport’s rich tradition in the valley.
“The roots in U.S. rugby are deep in Colorado and deep in Vail,” Cuomo said, adding that roughly 200 people gathered at the team’s home venue.
“We have probably one of the most spectacular pitches in the world,” he added of Ford Field. “It’s been quoted in books.”
Cuomo, who played for the team from 1984-2010 before continuing in his current leadership role, noted that the rugby club “was instrumental in creating the field,” laying sod alongside the late Ben Krueger, Vail Golf Club’s former superintendent in the ’70s.
The full-size international field has hosted numerous international elite players and teams, including both the French and English National squads.
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“One year when we played Aspen, we had nine countries represented on the field,” detailed Cuomo, noting athletes from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Zimbabwe, France, Italy, Argentina, Chile and the U.K. have often frequented Vail.
“It’s been an international destination for people seeking to play rugby,” he said.
“It’s been known throughout the rugby world: you go to Colorado if you want to do that in the summer.”
1. Gavin Hastings, Scotland
2. Gordon Bulloch, Scotland
3. Rob Wainwright, Scotland
4. Lynn Jones, Wales
5. Les Cusworth, England
6. Ian Morrison, Scotland
7. Bill Brown, USA
8. Steve Gray, USA
9. Doug Rollerson, New Zealand
10. Piet Kruger, South Africa
11. Laurent Benezech, France
12. Sebastian Bruno, France
13. Steve Blair, Scotland
14. Matt Whalen, USA
15. Bob Seliger, Mars interstellar
16. Travion Clark, USA
Rugby roots run deep
The Vail Rugby Club largely evolved out of those unique summer offerings.
“It was an opportunity for so many people around the world,” Cuomo said of Vail playing during both the summer and spring calendars.
During the ’80s and ’90s, which Cuomo called the “peak of club rugby” in Colorado — which houses USA Rugby in Colorado Springs — it was the norm for “every ski town to have a rugby team.”
And, those teams were good.
“There was a run in the late-90s where Aspen, for five years, was the best team in America,” he said.
Vail Rugby Club has 16 alumni who have suited up for their respective national teams, including Gavin Hastings. The fullback is widely regarded as one of the best Scottish players ever, having won 61 caps for Scotland, 20 as captain.
When Mark Bullock was the principal at Battle Mountain High School, he started a high school team that was supported by the Vail Rugby Club. In 2005, he left his post to become the director of rugby for the city of Glendale, CO. Bullock and Glendale — which now boasts the moniker “RugbyTown, USA” — were mentioned in a 2021 ESPN story, a testament to the sports notoriety in the state.
“He went from being Battle Mountain High School principal to running the biggest rugby program in America, which essentially led to the professional league,” Cuomo said, pointing to Major League Rugby, the 13-team union founded in 2017. Bullock’s Glendale Raptors were founding members. The organization left, however, in 2020 to start RugbyTown Crossover, shifting its focus to “recruiting and developing elite athletes from other sports and transforming them into rugby players” at the Rugby Town National Training Center.
“Colorado is one of the major hubs of rugby in the U.S.,” Cuomo declared.
Keeping the dream alive
Currently, Vail plays in the Rocky Mountain Rugby (RMR) Mountain League against teams from Grand Junction, Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, Aspen and Steamboat. Its roster is comprised of around 15-20 locals as well as 15-20 collegians or individuals identified by USA Rugby.
“They’ll send them to Vail as kind of a training ground,” Cuomo explained.
“A lot of those guys will stay in Colorado, and a few have gone on to play for the U.S. national team.” He cited Jason Damm, who now plays professionally for Rugby Atlanta, as one example.
Typically, the RMR league title is awarded to the club with the best record after a season facing every other opponent.
“The pandemic changed everything,” Cuomo said, noting that organizations which lacked leadership have struggled to reestablish a healthy schedule since. This year, no league title will be awarded, though Vail has played a fairly healthy summer slate. They took on the Denver Waterdogs on June 11, Steamboat June 18, played in the Cowpie Tournament on July 9 and traveled to Aspen on the 23rd before the rematch on Aug. 6.
Vail’s president, Chris Chantler, who also is the RMR Mountain League commissioner, and Cuomo are working hard to keep local rugby alive and well.
“While there are more people playing — and at a higher level (in the U.S.) — club rugby has maybe diminished in the last 30 years,” Cuomo pondered.
Next year, Chantler and Cuomo are excited about possibly bringing back the Ski Town tournament, one of the old pre-pandemic RMR highlights.
“We’re hoping to have it return to Vail,” Cuomo said. Winning the RMR Mountain League crown, the Ski Town title and Steamboat’s Cowpie tournament championship — one of the largest summer tournaments in the west — constitutes a ‘triple crown’ that Vail has won three times and Aspen once.
The club also launched a women’s rugby team in 2019, which Cuomo estimates has at least eight valley-based players.
“The dedication is pretty amazing with the women,” he said, also pointing over the pass to Summit High School’s girls team, which has won the last 14 state titles.
After spending time at Friday’s banquet reminiscing on past club-team train trips to Park City, multiple visits to New York and Washington D.C. for tournaments, and a laundry list of other memories with the six ‘generations’ of teams he’s watched move through, Cuomo’s fire for the sport seems to have enough life for another 50 years.
“Running rugby clubs — I’m not supposed to still be doing this at 64 years old,” he laughed.
“But between Chris and I, we just can’t let it slip away.”