Violence At The Snake Bite Classic
Will Utah clubs ever be invited anywhere?
(From the November 2004 Rugby Magazine)
In August of this year Rugby Magazine attended the National Club 7s in Park City, Utah and one of the teams that attracted our attention was the Provo Steelers. The only previous time we had seen Provo was on Saturday at the 2000 Aspen Ruggerfest when three members of the Utah-based team were arrested and charged with third-degree assault following a particularly vicious on-field brawl with the Denver Barbarians. The police directed the Steelers to leave town that day and the three arrested players subsequently received suspended sentences and were directed to perform community service.
The behavior of the Steelers at this yearís National Club 7s in Park City was exemplary and in Tongia Vaitaki they had, in this observerís estimation, the most talented player in the competition.
But in late September the following reports regarding Boiseís Snake Bite Tournament found their way to our offices.
September 25, 2004
Tournament Directorís Report (Part I)
From: Matt Genetti
To: Tournament Participants
Date: Sunday, September 26, 2004
We would appreciate your feedback and constructive criticism as to what you liked and disliked about this yearís Snake Bite Tournament.
With multiple requests and in light of recent events, we will no longer allow menís teams from Utah into our tournament. I felt they deserved a chance to prove people wrong and they failed to do so. We want quality rugby and enjoy games that are hard-hitting and competitive, but we cannot have teams in our tournament that will allow their players to escalate a situation by kicking opponents in the head and punching those who arenít looking.
Next yearís tournament will be held on the weekend of September 24-25.
From: Matt Genetti
Date: Wednesday, September 29, 2004
In a semifinal between Snake River Reunion (all retired ruggers) and Provo, the match was in it s final ten minutes with Provo being in full control with a four try to zero lead. Provoís frustration with the ref (their contention) came to a boil when an altercation broke out between the two sides.
It was your typical rugby fight with two guilty parties until a few Provo players took it upon themselves to kick a Snake River guy already on the ground (opening a huge gash on his head) and punching guys when they werenít looking (one got his front teeth knocked out and the other was knocked unconscious).
These chicken shit acts are what set Provo apart from other clubs. When I reported these actions to their club representative (who was unable to attend) he stated: "When itís on, anything goes."
I fully agree with defending yourself and your team, but this does not include taking shots at someone who cannot see you or defend themselves. When a guy is down, donít kick him and if a guy is posing no immediate threat, donít punch him.
The cops and paramedics were called and charges will be filed as one of our guys will have thousands of dollars in dental work needed (he was just trying to point out to the refs the Provo guy that kicked our guy in the head when someone whacked him).
Provo came to our tournament saying they wanted to compete nationally, as they did in 7s this summer, and they wanted to prove they could stick to playing rugby. But this Ďanything goesí attitude is something they cannot seem to shake and should keep them out of organized rugby.
Provo Steelersí Version
From: Rich Paongo,
To: Matt Genetti, Snake Bite Director
Date: Tuesday, September 28, 2004
You guys have an awesome tournament and I wish to thank you for the opportunity we had to play in it this year.
I also wish to apologize for the inappropriate actions of my players. I had just subbed out and when I caught my breath and turned around, all hell had broken loose. When I finally got in, I knew I could control my players. I grabbed a handful and walked them off to our sideline and things ended.
Unfortunately, it was a little too late. Had I been in there in the first place, I could have avoided what happened. I subbed out because we were in control of the game (four tries to 0 with five minutes left) and our captain had a few key players sub out so we could save some energy for the final.
Itís no excuse, but my guys were just way too frustrated by the repeated penalties the ref kept calling against us. It just seemed he didnít like us or had a chip on his shoulder against us. So when one of our guys got an uppercut to the lip while running with the ball, that gave them the excuse to retaliate.
Like I said, I am not finding an excuse; what my players did was not rugby and very inappropriate. A few bad apples have spoiled it for the rest of us who truly love this game.
From: Rich Paongo, Provo Steelers
To: Pacific Coast/Utah Rugby Unions
Date: Thursday, September 30, 2004
This letter serves as the official report of the Provo Steelers regarding the Snake Bite Tournament in Boise, ID on Saturday, September 25, 2004. I wish to preface the letter by stating that they have a great tournament, play some great rugby and we highly recommend it to anybody.
The Steelers were part of Pool D along with UVSC and the Boise Lions. We easily won both games and advanced to the semifinals where we faced Snake River Reunion.
During the game against Snake River, our playersí frustration increased from the poor officiating. The ref called at least 20 penalties or infractions against us in the first 20 minute half. I bring this up to convey the frustration we felt from the unfair officiating.
I asked the ref at halftime to call it both ways and expressed that his calls seemed a little one-sided for the home team and that our guys were getting very frustrated.
We led at intermission and the Steelers opened the second half with two more unanswered tries. With the game pretty much over and decided, one of our guys recovered a grubber kick along the sideline where the Snake River supporters were standing. The whole incident started when a Snake River player tackled our guy as he was running with the ball, with an uppercut to his face (verified by the touch judge, Larry Seger). Our guy collared the Snake River guy and a little shoving match resulted.
At that moment, a member of the Snake River team, who wasnít part of the game, ran in from the sidelines and sucker-punched the same guy (also verified by the touch judge). Our guys then attacked the guy who ran in from the outside.
Snake Riverís second team also ran onto the field. I am not sure whether it was to fight or to try to control the fight, but it looked bad that two teams were rushing to the fight when we only had a few guys. I made sure nobody ran into the field from our sideline.
First, Snake River started the fight. We reacted to the blatant uppercut by the Snake River guy.
Second, if the onlooker hadnít rushed the field and punched our guy, the uppercut would have been swept under the rug and the shoving match would have been dissolved.
Third, when Snake Riverís second team rushed the field - whether it was to participate in the fight, help one of their teammates, peace make, or whatever - you do not leave the sideline. It is easier to control a few guys than trying to control three teams (the two Snake River teams and the Provo Steelers). We felt defensive when we were outnumbered and rushing the field just fueled the fire.
The Steelers are at fault for being very loyal; you will not find a more loyal group of guys. However, that means you are either a friend or an enemy. So when Snake Riverís second team and supporters rushed the field, that just meant more enemies and our guys felt more threatened when they were outnumbered.
As punches were flying, you were either a friend or an enemy. And if you were not a friend, you had better get off the field because you were a threat to our team. And since there were the equivalent of two Snake River teams to our one, we felt we had to defend ourselves.
It was mainly four individuals from our team that did all the fighting. Two of them play for another team in Salt Lake City and joined the Steelers just for the tournament because we were short of players.
We regret this incident occurred and welcome any suggestions.
Tournament Directorís Report (Part II)
From: Matt Genetti
Date: October 2, 2004
It is unfortunate that Rich actually believes Snake River started it and that the Provo players were just defending themselves.
First, Snake #15, Mike Flowers, was playing wing and ran in (from the wing position) to defend his teammate Travis Crawl and his brother Bob Flowers, who were already on the ground being kicked. Some Steelers may have reacted to Mikeís arrival, but that was no means the beginning of what happened.
Mike Flowers was defending his brother in a fight that was already initiated by Provo players on the far sideline, away from Provo, so the Steelers could not see from their sideline position. Travis Crawl, who had been punched by a Provo guy, took him down and then got kicked in the head while on top of the Provo player (possibly the only one-on- one fight that occurred). All this happened before Mike Flowers came in.
Second, Snake River had possession of the ball, not Provo, and a Snake player got punched in the tackle.
Third, most of our current Snakes, what Rich refers to as the second Snake team, were over at the concessions or under the shade by our bus a field and a half away.
Fourth, not one guy that was not in the game took a hit. If we had so many onlookers rushing in, you would think one of them would have gotten punched. We simply did not have any more guys on the field than Provo did, possibly less.
Fifth, I (as tournament director) rushed onto the field when I saw Provoís sideline clearing. I rushed in front of them, yelling at them to stay off the field (stating that I was the tournament director). I would have gotten jumped by three or four guys except one of the Steelers recognized me and grabbed them, saying: "Not him; heís the tournament director."
I will note that a few of their guys made an effort to control their players.
Sixth, our players did rush the field in response to the Provo players coming out. But it was not a full side, as most of our guys were resting in the shade for the championship game. I yelled at my guys to stop and pushed one of them back. This was until I saw the damage that had been done and knew my efforts were too little too late.
At that point I saw one of our guys go down (helping a teammate) and knew that breaking things up was not going to work with the Steelers. Not to mention that by turning my back I was presenting a big target.
Seventh, the ref is not a Snake player, nor a Boise resident. Players in the US encounter a variety of reffing styles and must adjust to the calls. These volunteer refs do their best and although it may get frustrating, arguing or starting a fight will not fix it, especially when you have the game in hand. The Steelers claim to have played rugby their whole life (justifying their anger towards the ref), but if they cannot accept the refs in US rugby, then they should consider boycotting the game.
Eighth, as stated by the ref and everyone except Provo, the Steelers were not involved in one-on-one fights with an opponent who was ready to engage. They were seeking out kill shots on guys trying to point out guilty parties, trying to break things up, or trying to protect downed players. They came in numbers (never alone) on guys who were not looking.
Now they claim that their cheap shots were taken in "defense" because they feared for their safety. Punching and kicking an opponent who cannot see you is not defending yourself or your team. It is an act of a coward who wishes to cause harm to his opponent. Iíll state again, most of the Snake Reunion guys who got blindsided were trying to defuse the situation and not making aggressive moves!
Ninth, if they were not guilty then why did one of our former players, Sefo Insenio, rush two of them away from the pitch when the police arrived and why were others hiding?
If you take Provoís blatant cheap shots out of the game, you have one or two red cards, the game continues and both sides are to blame.
From: Craig Parish
Date: October 3, 2004
I have been a referee allocator since 1996 for the Pacific Northwest RFU and allocated all officials for this one-day event. As the #3 official, I slated myself into the semifinal between the Snake River Reunion side (old boys) and the Provo Steelers.
Boiseís Pat Ryan had the other semifinal and Murray McDowell, a ranked official here on vacation from NZ, had been slated for the final. We were on pitch #4, the furthest from the tournamentís command center, over 120 meters away. We were short of refs, so we used club TJs as the three other pitches were active.
Things looked good for the majority of the day for both clubs in question. Snakeís old boys did well in pool play without incident. Provo seemed poised to go all the way to the final after cruising through pool play, with a lone yellow card in their first match refereed by Spokaneís Sean OíConnell.
Snake River Reunion vs Provo Steelers
We had a very on-again, off-again first half as continuity was lacking in nearly all phases of play. Snake River had around 75% of the possession, but were not turning it into points. Each time they gave it up, Provo would put together a quick and decisive counter attack that either ended in a try or significant field position. Though Provo didnít seem to have any shortcomings defensively, I couldnít talk many of the arriving Provo players into adopting an on-side position at the majority of breakdowns.
In the first half, I spoke to the Provo captain twice and he to his players. Both times we had periods of 2-3 minutes before the next similar penalty. As the 20-minute half neared, I realized that tougher measures were needed.
The 10 meters of lost ground and lost possession didnít seem to be working - so I finally went to the cards - telling the captain (#10) that, "The next offside player in the red-zone will go to the bin..."
He told his players yet again and we made it to halftime without incident, 14-0 Provo.
During halftime I chatted with two Provo players who had questions about the seemingly one-sided whistle I was using.
"When you have the ball in hand, things are going well for you and itís wonderful to watch," I said. "But when you donít have possession, I canít keep you at the last foot or coming in from the side, or sealing the ball, etc..."
Provo seemed willing to take responsibility for the penalties and move on into the second half with a renewed sense of propriety.
We had a solid five minutes before two Provo players, ahead of the kicker, failed to retreat. I verbalized for them to do so without success - so I blew the whistle before any contact was made. The Provo players didnít seem to understand the call, so I spoke to the captain again and he to his players - heads nodded and we played on.
The breakdowns were becoming hotly contested and Provo took full advantage, scooping up exposed ball and scoring from an amazing multi-phased attack yet again.
Down 20-0 with less than 10 minutes to go, Snake River knew they were beaten, but took solace in the hard hits they were laying-out at the breakdowns. Conversation between the opposing players was plentiful and complimentary with pats on the butt and helping hands up from a tackle here and there.
Snake River won clean ball from a scrum 25 meters out from Provoís goal and 15 meters in from touch - and spun it. I had been on the put-in side and moved out to the gain-line about 10 meters to the open side.
As the ball was taken from the scrum, I didnít see what Murray McDowell did on the put-in side. "A Snake prop had shoulder-charged the Provo break who was messing with him." McDowell later told me, "Both of these players factored into what happened just moments later."
I followed the ball out through three phases with Snake piercing the Provo line and threatening to score from five meters. The Provo line lost their composure and stepped up into an offside position once again.
I verbalized for them to, "Get back on-side white, last foot!" My arm went out to Snake as the white team didnít respond: "Advantage green, white offside!"
We had a Snake maul three meters out with the ball clearly visible and playable. I went to the open side to try and get the Provo players back to see if we could facilitate a try - as it was clearly on. As I backed away from the line and into more of a saddle position, the ball was still available at the back of the maul.
Then I spotted two Provo players stomping on a Snake player on the ground. My whistle went immediately - but too late - as a Snake River player had jumped on top of the maul and delivered a punch to the head of one of the stomping Provo players...
Thatís when the state of affairs changed markedly for the worse. Punches were exchanged by several players. I blew my whistle loudly several times and instructed the teams to, "Grab your own players - get them back!"
We had an uncomfortable Ďlullí after the first round of physical reaction. I repeated the instruction - but the touchlines were clearing on both sides now, and everyone in proximity went into a Ďdefensive modeí (for lack of a better term.)
Fighting erupted again as outsiders from both touchlines blended in with the players on the pitch. The exchanges became more frantic as players were dealing with the reality of being an aggressor, actively defending themselves, trying to protect a mate, grabbing their own teammates, getting hit unprovoked or running away.
Provo then took it to another level, as they became very aggressive as a group. They surrounded isolated Snake players - attacking from behind with punches and kicks to the head. If Snake players went to ground, they would be kicked in the head and ribs by a group of Provo players.
If a Snake player looked aggressive, the Provo players in proximity would back up. When that same Snake player looked to move on to protect, collect or reach one of his own team, he would be attacked by those same Provo players as the Snake player was otherwise engaged.
Groups of Provo players circled the fray and then sprinted in to attack Snake players who were otherwise engaged with one of their own or another Provo player. Those Snake players would receive punches or kicks to the back or side of the head.
Snake River as a group did not aggressively seek out Provo players. Instead, they heeded my call to grab their own and retreat. As they did this they were attacked from behind or the side receiving punches or kicks to the side or back of the head.
This all took place in what seemed like half an hour but in reality was less than four minutes. There was simply no stopping the militant actions of the Provo players. I witnessed a few Provo players attempting to cease their teamís actions - then a teammate would jump into the fray and that same idled player seemed drawn in to Ďaidí his teammate... and so it went.
I stepped out of the middle of this melee to see it in total and get jersey colors and numbers. I was writing feverishly as I saw each unconscionable punch and kick to the head. Players I saw punching or kicking were White (Provo) numbers: 5, 4, 15, 12, 7, 8, 13 & 9 and Green (Snake River) number 15 & non-numbered. Two or three additional players from each team took aggressive action - but I was unable to get their numbers.
In the 3rd minute, I witnessed something that Iíll never forget. Grizzly prop Glen Amador was leaning down to help a stricken Snake River teammate when he was hit in the back of the head by two Provo players. Glen was stunned and went to his knees. The same two players then punched him in the side of the head from behind, knocking him to all fours - as he was clearly concussed. Then both kicked him in the ribs from both sides.
I got their numbers, threw down my pad and dove in on Glen who was now laying face down. I knew I was going to get it - but couldnít help it - I was in agony watching. I curled up around Glen and told him to stay down. He kept battling to get up and lifted me with him as he got to all fours.
I held on and closed my eyes waiting for the worst. But it never came as we both escaped. The remaining fights were abandoned within another minute. Glenís teammates came to collect him and, miraculously, he was able to walk away on his own power.
I found the Provo captain and we walked to the middle of the pitch to cool off. We spoke calmly as four Boise squad cars arrived, called by a bystander with a cell phone minutes before. Tournament Director Matt Genetti came over and we had a harsh discussion as we tried to come to grips with the reality of the moment.
I spoke with the Provo captain for another 30 minutes before the police asked for statements. In that time, the Provo skipper never took responsibility for his teamís actions. He kept repeating that they were simply defending themselves.
"We had to defend ourselves," he said, "We were afraid of getting beat up."
I offered to him that kicking a man in the head while he is down is not in any way defensive in nature. He simply didnít agree.
Some of the injuries I witnessed were: bloody faces, facial lacerations, multiple teeth knocked out, split ears and badly bruised heads. All belonged to Snake River players.
Fights on rugby pitches are very rare. Iíve seen my share and have been able to identify the flash-points that lead to most altercations. As a player for eight years and a referee for eleven, Iím experienced in sensing such moments in a game. You can feel it after awhile - even if you have missed the root cause.
In this case there were no signs that the match was out of hand, not in the least.
Yes, Provo was repeatedly penalized, but they seemed to understand their transgressions and played on. With a 20-0 lead and the game winding down, we didnít have an environment that would foster such actions by the side in the lead. The referees, players and bystanders I spoke with never saw it coming Ė and neither did I.
Punches were thrown by both teams initially - that much is certain. However, at no point did Snake River or their sidelines take on the role of the aggressor. After the initial few stomps and punches, the Provo team and sidelines were aggressive in nature and unwilling to stop unprovoked attacks on Snake players or bystanders.
No Provo players were on the ground being kicked by Snake River players. No Provo players were punched or kicked from behind. No Provo players were stalked by groups of Snake River players and attacked when they were otherwise engaged.
My heart goes out to the players and bystanders whose rugby experience was sullied by this event.
PNRFU Referee Allocator
Level 1 & 2 Referee Trainer
Level 1-3 TJ Trainer