Snake River Rugby Sets its Sights on the Championship 

On a blustery Saturday afternoon, dozens of fans gather at Willow Lane Park off of State Street to watch one of the Northwest's best rugby club teams. They stand on the sidelines and cheer as the burly men, legs as thick as tree trunks, wrap tackle each other and toss a ball to players downfield.

The players have day jobs but spend their free time with Snake River Rugby, Boise's local championship team. In its 40-year existence, the Snakes have had their share of victory--the team took third in the nation for Mens Division II in 2010 and won the national championship in 1996--and have built a reputation for being good. But lately, they've gotten really good, again.

Now ranked first among nine teams in a conference that draws talent from cities much bigger than Boise, Snake River is poised to make another run at the national championship.

"Only time will tell if we'll be that good or better," said Michael "Mik" Lose, Snake team member and former Boise State football champion. "We are definitely on the right path."

The team recruits former Boise State football players like Lose and Ia Falo. Former Boise State wrestler Bart Johnson is also on the team, and the Snakes' coach used to play for the national team, the USA Eagles. Many members have roots in the South Pacific, where rugby is part of the culture.

A lot of guys are highly skilled and dedicated to excellence on the rugby pitch, or field, Lose said. The Snakes have roughly 30 members, who practice twice a week and play games each spring and fall.

"There is a brotherhood that surrounds rugby," said Lose. "We do stuff off the field. One of our teammates hosts breakfasts on Sundays. We make it a point to hang out with the team, so the team is a lot closer, relationship-wise."

With the championship in its sights and a desire to give back to the community, Snake River Rugby hopes to attract new fans and recruits.

"I think people should come watch the team because Boise loves champions," said Lose. "I came from Boise State when we won four conferences out of the five. We do our best to put our best foot forward."

To orient new fans, team member Nicolas Kawaguchi handed out rule fliers at a recent match to help people understand the game.

Kawaguchi is one of a newer batch of team members that wants to promote the sport of rugby and preserve the Snakes traditionally strong fan base. For last year's championship, 50 people traveled to Denver from all over the country to support Snake River, said team founder Rod Sears.

"We have a very strong alumni following and they really support the rugby club. You build a tradition that way," said Sears.

He said Snake River owes its survival in part to active recruiting, something that current players want to continue.

"You get a core group, they play, they get older and slower," said Sears. "During that time, you hope to bring in a young group with youthful infusion and athletic ability. And hopefully, the old guys step out and the young guys take over."

That's exactly what's happening now with the team.

Kawaguchi said the newer, younger players have a lot of respect for the "old boys"--retired players like Sears. "These past couple years, the torch has been passed and a new group is running the club. We just want to make the past management proud and do the club right."

He said the team wants to promote the sport among youth as a less-injury-prone alternative to football.

"I believe that it is very important for the youth due to the fact that football injuries are common and horrible. Rugby has significantly less injuries, and way less head injuries, than football every year."

Perhaps for these reasons, the sport is probably the fastest growing in America, Lose said.

Outside of Snake River Rugby, the sport is gaining traction around the valley. Many other younger players are joining teams in their divisions.

"Four years ago, we had four high-school teams," he said. "Now we have 12--three high-school girls' teams are getting ready to begin rugby."

"You kind of fall in love with the culture of rugby, especially where I come from," said Lose. "Basically, anyone of Polynesian descent in the NFL has some sort of rugby background. It prepares you to play better football."

Lose, whose parents are from Tonga, started playing rugby in seventh grade.

In the sport, athletes have more opportunity to play compared to football, where you can only have 11 guys on the field.

But beyond the sport, Kawaguchi said playing rugby is a great way to meet people and give back to the community. The players come from various backgrounds and professions. Some are firefighters, attorneys and teachers. Kawaguchi is a product manager at a solar company.

The team does projects like Rake-up Boise. Members even started a book club, with its own mission, "to generate healthy discussion and debate by utilizing the education, background and experiences off all members."

It started with a few guys talking about a book on Facebook. One of the guys jokingly suggested they start a book club. And it stuck.

"People at work laugh when I tell them about the book club," said Kawaguchi. "They assume [rugby] is all about beer and hitting people."

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