SALT LAKE CITY — For the first time in USA Rugby history, the United States is hosting an international rugby tournament.
Lucky for Utah rugby fans, the tournament is being held in Murray.
For four days in over the next two weeks (June 18, 22, 26 and 30), the Junior World Rugby Trophy tournament will be held at Murray Rugby Park where eight national teams comprised of players ages 20 and under will compete for the right to play with rugby's strongest nations.
"The JWRT is a wonderful opportunity for young players from all over the globe to bring their skills to the attention of the world," said International Rugby Board (IRB) Tournament Director Tom Jones said Friday at a press conference held at the University of Utah. "The experience of being at a major youth tournament will stand to them as their rugby careers develop, and they have a rare chance to forge friendships to last a lifetime."
Those friendships were already evident as captains from each of the eight teams (United States, Tonga, Chile, Russia, Japan, Georgia, Canada and Zimbabwe) were already trading stories as they posed for photos around the state Capitol on Friday.
This annual tournament, which began in 2008, was created to help develop rugby outside of its strongholds in the Southern Hemisphere and Western Europe.
Salt Lake City was selected to host the tournament over other U.S. cities for several reasons, said Jim Snyder, USA Rugby director of rugby operations.
"First, and foremost the rugby community here is incredibly vibrant and we expect the crowds to be good," he said. "In addition, there is a pretty diverse culture here with Tongan population, so we know that's going to help with fan support.
"And also Salt Lake is just so beautiful. We thought it would be a great representation of what the U.S. is to have these teams come here and get a taste of a beautiful city."
Jones said USA Rugby's commitment to youth rugby at the grassroots level — especially here in Utah — is helping the United States to close the gap on the field.
"USA Rugby has arguably the best program for children in the world," Jones said of USA Rugby's Rookie Rugby program.
"Most of the players who played rugby, until quite recently, in the USA were introduced to the game at the university level," said Jones, who is also the IRB's general manager of the North American and Caribbean region. "That will no longer be the case. What we do today will pay dividends down the road."
In some ways it already is. Winning the bid for this tournament may even lead to a World Cup bid down the road.
"It's a major milestone for us to put this on and gain from the experience working with the IRB so hopefully we can get bigger and better tournaments in the future," Snyder said.
Match Day 1
Murray Rugby Park
Japan vs. Zimbabwe, noon
Chile vs. Russia, 2 p.m.
Georgia vs. Canada, 4 p.m.
United States vs. Tonga, 6 p.m.
Tickets are $5 for day