A brief history of the Montana Rugby Union
By Brandon Walker EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – The Bozeman Cutthroats Rugby Club hosted the Jackson Hole Moose Rugby Club for a friendly match on June 27 in what may be the only competition to take place on the rugby pitch in Gallatin County this year.
“It’s great. We’re excited, we’re happy to do it, we’re just stoked to get a game in,” said Ben Johnson, a lock forward for the Cutthroats, prior to the match on June 25. “We didn’t think we’d even have one all year.”
The Cutthroats defeated the Moose 25-5, in the friendly competition after learning that their season and usual tournaments have all been canceled for the year. While rugby is set to experience a slow year due to COVID-19, its history in Montana is rich.
“Rugby in Montana—I mean it’s not huge—but we’ve got a history, we’ve got some well-established teams,” Johnson said.
The Cutthroats are a member of the Montana Rugby Union which has been in existence since 1976. “We play in the Montana Rugby Union, which is a union, with its own teams, we play for our own championship [and] our own trophy,” Johnson said.
Johnson explained that rugby unions were independent before USA Rugby, the national association for rugby in the U.S., was formed in 1975 and clubs began to affiliate with the centralized entity—a move the MRU never made.
“Over the years, these what were called outlaw unions, kind of dissolved and started to get annexed into USA Rugby, but the Montana Rugby Union is the last outlaw union,” Johnson said. “We’re the last group of teams that play just the way we’ve always done it.”
The eight-team union is comprised of the Cutthroats, the Coeur d’Alene Osprey, the Billings Bulls, the Butte Crabs, the University of Montana Jesters, the Missoula Maggots, the Great Falls Electric City Shockers and the Flathead Moose.
The Cutthroats typically have a spring and fall season. They play five matches in the spring season, ultimately culminating in an MRU end of season tournament, in which the victors lay claim to the rotating Silver Cup. Prior to the cancelation of this season, the Cutthroats were aiming to reclaim the Silver Cup, after winning three consecutive years from 2016 to 2018. The fall season is less structed with teams only partaking in a single MRU competition, before finding friendly matches and tournaments to participate in for the remainder of the fall.
Johnson, who has played rugby since 2004 when he was earning his degree in wildlife biology at the University of Montana, said the roughly 30-man Cutthroat squad was formerly known as the Bozeman Deer Slayers. He joined the Cutthroats after relocating to Big Sky in 2011, having played his first seven seasons for the University of Montana Jesters.
In preparation for their friendly match on June 27, the team was practicing about twice per week, adapting play to two hand touch style rather than full on contact. In a normal season the Cutthroats practice four times each week between fitness training and tactic focused practices, Johnson said.
After the final scrum on June 27, the two teams shared a meal together at the field, rather than gathering at a local eatery as was previously planned, before the Jackson Hole team returned home.