SUMMERFUN: Tough stuff — catch Aurora Rugby

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At 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds, Zach Fenoglio is a large man.

So when he tells you to go watch the Rocky Mountain Rugby Challenge this summer at the Aurora Sports Park, just do it. It might save a lot of pain.

If you really like it, the June 17-19 national showcase tournament for the country’s top prep boys and girls rugby talent will only take two days of your life and allow you the chance to enjoy Colorado’s gorgeous summer weather. It ranks right up there in fun things to do in Aurora over the summer for many ages and pretty cheap for two days’ entertainment.

“It’s an awesome tournament that highlights not only the best talent in Colorado, but also throughout the country,” said Fenoglio, who played in the RMC (now in its 16th year) three times and used it to launch his very successful professional playing career. “It’s a great opportunity for the next wave of youth players to showcase their skills and play against the best in the country.”

The Rocky Mountain Challenge has been a staple of summer in Aurora since its advent in 2000, when it got a small start at North Middle School. It’s grown in size and popularity so much that it needed bigger digs and now is set at the city’s beautifully maintained Aurora Sports Park, using its vast array of green fields to its advantage.

There’s pomp and circumstance — a bagpiper leads all the teams onto the field together to open the tournament — before the competition begins to decide the baddest prep teams in the land. Each team has big guys, small guys and tough guys, villains and heroes worth watching.

As a sport, rugby’s popularity and relevance on a national and global scale may never be higher than it is right now.

Played in more than 100 countries across the globe, a sport that fuses the skills and tenets of American football with elements of wrestling and a sprinkling of other sports steps up on the big stage this summer as part of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The United States, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, France, Great Britain, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand and South Africa are among the teams set to compete.

Meanwhile, Rugby 7s — a much faster-paced game with just seven players on the field on each side as opposed to 15 in the traditional game — has peaked interest in the sport and drew more than 80,000 fans to a three-day tournament in March in Las Vegas.

Rugby is cheap (cleats and a mouthguard are the main equipment) and easy to understand as a player or as a spectator.

David Farmer, who is part of the coaching staff for the highly successful Aurora Saracens high school club rugby team, once described rugby this way: “I look at it as the game kids would invent if they were brought to a field with no preconception of any other game and you just rolled a ball out there.”

Distilled down, teams of 15 players each advance an oblong ball to the try zone, akin to the endzone in football, with lateral or backwards passes, stretching the play quickly from sideline to sideline. Action continues when a player is tackled and puts the ball on the ground. Scrums and line outs are set plays that establish possession and scoring comes on a five-point try — equivalent to a touchdown in football— and two- or three-point free kicks through uprights.

Toughness, grit and a high pain threshold make rugby players among the most inspirational you can watch in any sport.

Many players get their starts at showcase tournaments like the Rocky Mountain Challenge, where coaches from the U.S. Junior National Team watch intently as they seek the sports’ next young stars.

Fenoglio drew an invitation to a junior national camp from his time at the RMC and he’s taken it from there. He’s a member of the Glendale Raptors professional team, he counts nine international caps with the U.S. national team — including an appearance in the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England — and he coaches the club rugby team at Aurora’s Regis Jesuit High School, where he’s a chemistry teacher.

Colorado’s ability to compete in the Rocky Mountain Challenge continues to improve, as the state now has an estimated 1,200 youth players between the ages of 5 and 15 in its developmental system. The Aurora Saracens — who celebrate their 30th anniversary in 2016 — have become one of the best sources of talent for the state teams that compete in the tournament.

“As rugby is continuing to grow in this country and as we have rugby returning to the Olympics, this is the great opportunity for people in the area to support our local talent, as well as experience what truly makes this global sport so great. I encourage everyone to get out there and check it out!”

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