SOCORRO, N.M. September 7, 2011 -- Most U.S. residents can be forgiven for not knowing, but one of Earth's most-watched sporting events is just days away. For two athletes who've made their marks locally in a sport still largely misunderstood and underreported by U.S. sportswriters, the Rugby World Cup offers a chance to renew a friendship forged on the playing field of New Mexico Tech.

rugby---aldape-in-action
The feared galloping stride of Nick Aldape in the Pygmies Vs. Ancestors game during 2010 49ers.

rugby---aldape-and--chavez-at-the-butte
Nick Aldape (left) and James Chavez enjoy some down time at Elephant Butte Lake.

The RWC, as it is known, which is contested every fourth year by the top 20 of the world's 117 national teams, will kick off September 9 (September 8 in New Mexico) when the host New Zealand All Blacks take on physically-challenging Tonga in Auckland. Following six weeks and 47 grueling pool and playoff matches staged throughout the island country, the curtain will be drawn for another four years with the grand final back in Auckland on October 23. The last RWC, played in France, reached a total international audience of 4.2 billion.

James Chavez, 27 and a lifetime Socorroan with university credits at both New Mexico Tech and New Mexico State University, flew to the Land of the Long White Cloud on September 7 for a three-week stay. There he reunited with former Tech Rugby Club teammate Nick Aldape, who's been working for an engineering firm and playing rugby for the Coastal Rugby Club in New Plymouth, N.Z., almost from the day he received his civil engineering degree in May 2010. With domestic rugby winding down following a full southern hemisphere winter schedule, Nick will have weekends free to accompany his friend to a pair of World Cup matches in New Plymouth's Yarrow Stadium.

"Nick's already got tickets for the Ireland-USA game on the 11th and USA versus Russia on the 15th," says James Chavez with obvious relish. "He's also offered the use of his car so I can get around during the week while he's working. It's kind of scary, though; I'll have to learn how to shift with my left hand!"

Aldape played high school football in Farmington and was a defensive back at Highlands University before transferring to New Mexico Tech in 2008. At Tech, he became friends with Chavez during visits to the university's weight room, where Chavez worked hard to augment his six foot, 230-pound frame for the physical demands of the rugby scrum's front row.

“We just naturally hit it off and eventually Nick came out for the rugby club,” Chavez said. “He's a tremendous athlete, but very modest; he never held himself above anyone else.”

Blessed with a sprinter's pace, the 6' 3”, 205-pound Aldape fell into a talented group of back-line players at Tech who benefited from the ball-winning skills of Chavez and his fellow forwards up front. Aldape soon earned a reputation for spectacular scoring runs, and eventually attracted the attention of New Zealand rugby great Graham Mourie, who was visiting New Mexico. Aldape eventually became a beneficiary of the renowned rugby culture and found himself bound for the Taranaki region of New Zealand, from where Mourie grew into a legendary All Black captain in the 1970s.

“Rugby is very much part of Kiwi culture,” Aldape wrote via email. “It certainly is easy to be humbled by the talent that is around. But after playing my second season for the Coast, I feel my overall understanding of the game has increased tenfold.”

The two friends also plan travel to surrounding cities to take in additional international contests. "It will be an exciting time for Kiwis everywhere; the ads here have been promoting it for over a year, and it's been building steam as the days get nearer."

Aldape-mug-IMG_0829
Nick Aldape in Coastal RFC garb, in New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Even many Americans who don't know the shape of rugby ball have heard of the famous New Zealand All Blacks, who've had a very curious World Cup record. Despite enjoying the best international record of any nation during interim years (hounded closely by defending champs South Africa), unlucky New Zealand has claimed but one William Webb Ellis trophy, in the inaugural year of the RWC in 1987. Could it be fate that 1987 was the last year the tournament was held on New Zealand soil?

"Interestingly enough" writes Aldape, "80-90 percent of the people I talk too are not very optimistic of the Abs’ chances! They peak too early or something."

Aldape says he is "still very content" living, working, and playing among the Kiwis, and his choice of words sometimes betrays that influence: "shifting" instead of "moving," "crook" for "sick," and so on. Yet he remains proud of his heritage: "The only team I would want to see the All Blacks lose to would be the U.S. Eagles in the championship; that way I could strut around at work."

A winning wager placed that way would pay highly indeed. Current International Rugby Board rankings list the United States a humble No. 18, between Romania and pool opponents Russia. By virtue of its Tri-Nations competition upset of New Zealand on August 26, Australia may have taken over as favorites, with defending champs South Africa, France, and England rounding out the top five.

While RWC exposure in the United States may continue to lag behind the rest of the world, NBC Sports will carry three World Cup matches, USA-Ireland on September 11, New Zealand-Canada on October 2, and the grand final on October 23. Internet aficionados will doubtless be able to ferret out more matches. And for those millions of Americans who still don't know the “laws” of rugby, there's the animated YouTube primer “Rugby 101.”

Chavez will take up the scrum cap for New Mexico Tech's Pygmies again upon his return in early October.

“I love rugby because it's such a team-oriented game,” says Chavez. “And now it's giving me a life experience; a chance to travel, experience an international event, and meet new kinds of people. I've never loved a game as much as this one.”

– NMT –

By Dave Wheelock/New Mexico Tech Rugby Director