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Chicago Rugby Club Hosts Welsh Team in 20 Year Friendship

 Undated photos from the Lincoln Park Rugby Club.
Undated photos from the Lincoln Park Rugby Club.
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Lincoln Park Rugby Club

LINCOLN PARK — The old boys from Wales are back in town this weekend to celebrate 20 years of friendship with the Lincoln Park Rugby Club.

It was an unlikely chance happening that the two teams met 20 years ago, but since that first encounter the bonds have never been broken.

This weekend the Lincoln Park Rugby Club and the Wrexham Rugby Club are set for an Old Boy match, players 35-years and up, Sunday afternoon at Diversey Harbor.

It is Wrexham's third trip to Chicago to play the Lincoln Park club.

It isn't just the match the two clubs are excited about, as the friendship between them has been about much more than rugby.

The Lincoln Park club has visited Wales twice.

When the Welsh club came to town the first year they originally came to play another Chicago team, but that local bunch was not the most hospitable group. So, the Lincoln Park club took them under their wing for the week, according to players from both teams.

Ever since, the two clubs have kept in touch and made visits to play each other a number of times over the years including in Wales and in Toronto.

"We just seemed to click with Lincoln Park, I think," said Ian Gallager, a member of the Welsh club. "They looked after us and they were really, really good."

Twenty-six members of the Wrexham club landed in Chicago Wednesday for what Gallager called the last hurrah.

Most of the guys who played the first time around will be back for the old boys game.

"It's just a nice way to finish off what we started. We've had some brilliant times," Gallager said.

The schedule for the Welsh visit includes a stop at The Second City, a Cubs game from the bleachers and a visit to Carol's Pub in Uptown.

The Wrexham boys plan to honor one of their former team members, Major John 'Felix' Richards, who died in late 2010, by sporting traditional "country gents" attire during a day on the town Friday.

Chicago was the first place that Wrexham had visited over the past 20-or-so years that Gallager said not only he, but the majority of the players kept in touch with.

"I love Chicago as a town and I don't think I've ever been to such a friendly place," he said.

Much of the camaraderie has revolved around pubs. Although many of the players from both squads are a lot older this time around, Chicago's club doesn't expect that to change.

"I'm a little afraid I'm going to have to explain to my wife how I'm going to be missing for a couple days," said Joe Sanner, a member of Lincoln Park's squad. 

Over 45 years of existence, the Lincoln Park club's home bar has changed a handful of times. It started at Der Red Barron (early '70s to mid/late '80s), then switched to the US Beer Company (1994 to 2000) to the Tequila Roadhouse (2000-2005), The Irish Oak (late 2000s), and Sterch's.

Other pubs the club was known to frequent have included Big Johns, Cassidy's, Nick's, the Store, the Red Lion, The Beaumont and Glascott's.

"It's the kind of club that was founded to play the game seriously, but to play it with a sense of camaraderie and fun," said Tony Boyland, a former Chicago-based reporter and member of the Lincoln Park team.

Sanner described the relationship between the two clubs as a brotherhood.

The Welsh team sent a coach over to Chicago to help a few years back when they were in the playoffs.

"We are like their kid brother. They are like the big brother," Sanner said. "Rugby is a much bigger deal out where they are from."

Wrexham stayed in a flop house downtown on their last visit and hung out at Jake's bar on Clark Street so frequently in their week in town that the bar still had a Wrexham banner up before it closed.

"They said no one has ever drank as much as those guys did in a week," Sanner said. "They were just crazy."

The last time Wrexham was in town one of their players, Trevor Johnson, Princess Diana's body guard who was the sole survivor of the 1997 crash, joined members of the Lincoln Park club at Goose Island Brewpub.

He was angry with the bartender after realizing there was no goose in his Goose Island salad.

Visitors are welcome to watch the two clubs face off Sunday at Diversey Harbor for a 2:30 p.m. start and later at Fizz Bar, 2330 Belmont, for an untimed "third half."