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Anchorage rugby enthusiast builds field of his dreams

It's tough to avoid comparisons to "Field of Dreams" -- the 1989 Kevin Costner movie about a man compelled to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his corn fields -- when you're talking about Justin Green and his passion for rugby.

Green, the owner of Alaska Demolition, has used his access to heavy equipment and discarded materials to carve a full-size rugby field in Potter Valley above Anchorage that's attracting attention around the world.

The invitation-only field can take a bit of work to find, but if you're hiking above the valley southeast of Anchorage proper, it's hard to miss.

"I'm still waiting for the first plane to do an emergency landing here," joked Green, 42, looking out over the expanse, which is larger than an NFL field.

By chance, a small Cessna soon buzzed overhead and dipped its wings in greeting as two teams played Thursday evening.

The privately owned field is part of Green's effort to expand the sport in Alaska with help from other rugby lovers and friends. Crowned with views of the Chugach Mountains on one side and Cook Inlet on the other, the field inspires players to drop words like "amazing" and "spectacular" to describe it. It comes complete with a clubhouse that's tied to Green's home, with locker rooms, showers, a weight lifting area, even a full bar called the "rugby pub."

Rugby Magazine recently featured Green's creation on its pages, and the International Rugby Board's "Total Rugby" TV show weighed in on its Facebook page, asking whether the field is the most beautiful in the world. They're coming up this summer to film it, Green said.

The Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds, as the facility is called, took nearly a decade to create, including two years just getting the grass to grow. Friends like Bill Tucker, namesake of the annual Mother Tucker tournament because he helped launch rugby in Anchorage decades ago, thought Green was crazy. But the inaugural scrimmage was held last summer.

"This is a world-class facility," said Cam Vivian, president of the Alaska Rugby Union. "Justin drew it up on a bar napkin eight years ago. I'd come up here and I couldn't envision it. But here it is. And look at it. Wow! Wow!"

The environs, stunning as they are, may be less important to longtime players than rugby's growth spurt in Anchorage. That includes what is apparently the first organized effort to introduce rugby to youths, courtesy of Green and friends such as organizer Craig Cornichuck. More than 50 kids younger than 16 are practicing twice weekly at Goldenview Elementary in South Anchorage, coaches said, playing touch and flag games and learning to tackle properly.

"It's been years since we've seen growth like this," said Vivian.

One advantage to the sport, especially for youths, is that it's relatively inexpensive. The only fee for the youth program is $5 to $20 for insurance through USA Rugby, depending on a kid's age.

"Parents pay hundreds of dollars for other sports," Green said. "But you know what this costs? It's five bucks and a set of cleats."

Nardus Wessels, a young coach and former all-American with Arkansas State University, was at Green's field on Thursday, helping train new recruits in Rugby 101, a new program designed to create more competition in a growing adult social league. He discovered the field on the Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds website.

On his site, Green shares life lessons he learned from the sport as a kid attending a boarding school in England, and his dream to put rugby on the map in Alaska, where he was born and raised.

Wessels was so impressed, he got in touch with Green. Now, he's come up voluntarily to help build the sport in Anchorage. He brought along a batch of teammates and fellow New Zealand natives. They're helping too, and they're all living at the clubhouse while they're in Alaska this summer.

Wessels said he was most impressed by Green's efforts to get kids involved in the sport.

"This is a model of how America should be promoting it around the world," said Wessels, 25. "Other programs elsewhere in the U.S. have burned out because there's no flow of new people."

Wessels came north because he wanted to see a new place, and "this was the most interesting thing happening around the world," he said.

Rugby is like that, players said, with clubs making long-distance trips for exotic tournaments, and locals opening their homes.

"I would say we've expanded the rugby world, opening up a market for different teams in a wilderness setting in Alaska," Green said, adding that he's talking with international clubs about coming north to compete.

Longtime players on Thursday said they'd like to see rugby in high schools, including for girls. Rugby is the fastest-growing team sport in the nation, they said, and colleges are increasingly offering athletic scholarships.

"If we could get this in the schools, it would open up new opportunities for students," said Ted Snider, 50, shortly after he had helped the Bird Creek Barbarians sneak a win past the new team, still unnamed, that consisted in part of the players from New Zealand.

After the game, David Bailer and two other young Army friends said they signed up for Rugby 101 because they were looking for a tough workout. Practice started a few weeks ago, and Thursday was the first game. After 80 minutes of almost nonstop play, they were satisfied.

"It's a blast," Bailer said.

It's good for older guys too, said David Hall, a longtime employee of the oil industry who signed up for Rugby 101 after enlisting his two kids in the youth league.

"For organized sports for a guy my age, it's usually softball and bowling. But this is pretty awesome and the doors are open for anyone."

As for Green, the sport continues to change his life. Several years ago, he tried to reach his old headmaster, who is from Wales and instilled a love of the game in him. But he was told that Ian Gollop had died. Turns out that wasn't true. Last week, Gollop, now 80, contacted Green out of the blue after reading about his field online.

"He found my website and he couldn't believe it," Green said. "He emailed me two days ago and I thought it was a joke. But it's not. This all happened because of that man."

Reach Alex DeMarban at alex@alaskadispatch.com.

 


By ALEX DEMARBAN
alex@alaskadispatch.com