Rugby players from across North America will descend on Pima County Saturday for the second biennial Brother John’s Tucson Rugby Club Invitational, a tournament designed to foster international relations.
The first invitational was held in Tucson two years ago, when the Guadalajara Lobos played the Tucson Magpies Rugby Club. The Magpies were invited to Guadalajara to compete again the following year.
This year, the invitational has added a men’s team from Canada and other teams from the United States. Saturday’s winner in both the men’s and women’s divisions receives a trophy; all attendees are invited to a social at Brother John’s Beer Bourbon and BBQ after the matches.
“This is not just an opportunity to play rugby. This is about reaching across borders to learn more about Mexico and Canada and its people while sharing the American culture right here in Tucson,” Magpies president Barry Gabbard said.
“This is about building friendships that last a lifetime and lead to commerce and tourism between people in Tucson, Mexico and Canada.”
While the invitational is still in its early years, the idea of rugby in Tucson is not: The Magpies were founded in 1980 by University of Arizona players Dave Sitton, Rick Rendon and Rich Rectanus. The Magpies, who will be celebrating their 40th year, aren’t even Tucson’s oldest club. That distinction belongs to the Old Pueblo Rugby Football Club.
Magpies coach John Rouff said that most Tucsonans aren’t aware that there’s one rugby club in town, let alone two.
“It’s the second-biggest sport in the world ... and it’s just America is a little slow on the uptake,” Rouff said.
Rouff, who is in his 16th year with the Magpies, has served in various capacities with the club, including president and captain. Rouff learned to play rugby at the UA; he later played on the Magpies for Sitton.
In the 1970s and 1980s, international invitationals were common, with the Michelob Classic being Tucson’s premiere event, Rouff said.
“Teams were coming from Wales, New Zealand, Ireland and England. It was a huge tournament and a big draw,” Rouff said. “A lot of that stuff has kind of fallen away, and so this has been the long-term push to try to get something started back up in Tucson.”
The Rugby Club Invitational’s evolution mirrors that of Tucson’s rugby scene: In 2011, the Magpies were expanded to include a team for high-school-age players, the Tucson Black Birds. A few years later, the club took it a step further, starting a youth team called the Tucson Roosters. The Roosters’ objective is to introduce kids to rugby through a non-contact version of the sport.
Tucson rugby isn’t just for men, either. Several years ago, the Magpies created a high school girls’ team, the Tucson Thunderbirds; earlier this month, the club founded the Tucson Ravens, a team for women ages 18 and older. The addition of the Ravens means Tucson now has rugby offerings for everyone ages 5 and up.
Still, Rouff calls the Tucson rugby community “fairly small,” with many players on the adult teams serving as coaches on the high school or kids teams — and many of their children playing. Alumni help with sponsorship and fundraising.
Rugby debuted at the Olympics during the 1900 summer games but was dropped from the Olympics after the 1924 games. Nearly 100 years later, the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate rugby to the summer games; the sport returned at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“Prior to Rio, the U.S. was actually the last Olympic champion (in rugby),” Rouff said, adding that the sport has changed a lot, but back in the early 1900s, a lot of college football players would convert to rugby for the purpose of competing in the Olympics.
“The sports changed a lot and it sort of become professionalized in the ’90s, so that’s where the U.S. has been left behind, so to speak.”
Rouff said that officials with Kino Sports Complex and Visit Tucson have been crucial in making the invitational happen. The National Rugby playoffs were played in Tucson in both 2016 and 2017; a collegiate tournament was held here in May.
“It’s all been at Kino with the long-term goal of eventually making Tucson one of the winter homes for rugby in the United States,” Rouff said.
“Not enough of the rugby stadiums are winter capable, so the places that are able to host due to weather don’t have the facilities that can house them, so that’s where Kino’s been a pretty big landmark for us.”