Rugby: Coloradan Finds a Rugby Home Where the Sport Is King

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Chris Baumann, center, tackling Eben Etzebeth of South Africa (4) while playing for the United States in a Rugby World Cup match in London last year.

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Acundo Arrizabalaga/European Pressphoto Agency

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Chris Baumann has racked up plenty of miles over the last few years in his quest to play rugby.

Baumann, a Colorado native, has spent time with the Scottish club East Kilbride, played a club season in Japan for Yokohama Country & Athletic Club and had a stint in Australia with the University of the Sunshine Coast team and in Sydney with the Randwick team — all four amateur clubs — before helping the Denver Stampede win the inaugural PRO Rugby title in the United States.

Now Baumann, 29, is in New Zealand, playing on his first professional contract outside the United States with the Wellington provincial team in the Mitre 10 Cup competition, which is ranked only behind the New Zealand All Blacks and Super Rugby, in New Zealand.

Baumann, a tighthead prop who has played nine times for the USA Eagles national team, is one of a growing number of Americans who are playing professionally abroad.

Most play for clubs in Europe, though, and it is still a rarity to see an American playing rugby in New Zealand, where it is the national sport. Eric Fry played for Manawatu in 2012, and this year Baumann and New Zealand-born Tony Lamborn are the only Eagles players playing in the Mitre 10 Cup.

Baumann’s opportunity came courtesy of Eagles Assistant Coach Marty Veale, a New Zealander, who suggested that Wellington take a look after the club’s incumbent tighthead prop, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, was injured.

‘‘Marty Veale sent some footage, and they said, ‘Yeah, send him over,’ ’’ Baumann said. “I had nothing to lose because if I didn’t do well, I would just get sent home.”

But after impressing during preseason matches in what was essentially a tryout, Baumann has become a mainstay in the Wellington front row since August, starting every match so far.

Wellington Coach Earl Va’a has liked what Baumann, a 6-foot, 260-pound prop, has brought to the team — aside from Baumann’s eye-catching mullet hairstyle.

“He’s definitely brought a bad haircut! We’re talking to him about that!” joked Va’a. “He’s a great character. He works hard. He’s a student of the game and always asking questions and always wants to learn.”

Baumann came to rugby relatively late in his athletic career and played hockey and football until his first year at the University of Wyoming. But he knew plenty about the Wellington club and its opponents, after watching the provincial competition on television.

‘‘That kind of made it pretty exciting when I did come over here,” he said. “I already knew about all the teams and their stadiums and thought how cool it would be to play in them.”

Still, there was a steep learning curve. “The full-time training has been very . . . I don’t even know the word for it,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s definitely put my body to levels it hasn’t experienced before. The week-in, week-out level of competition that’s something that doesn’t happen in the U.S., either.”

“The club competition in the U.S. is actually pretty good. It’s just spread out and sporadic as far as levels of play is concerned,” he said. “You do get some very good teams put together. There are definitely hotbeds, but it’s not like this.”

Baumann admits he is not much of a planner and has not looked beyond the end of Wellington’s season, which will be over by the end of this month.

“We’re happy to have him here,” said Va’a. “Hopefully we can extend his stay here for a longer period if that’s possible.”

Baumann’s future is also likely to include more Eagles matches in November. The team will play the Maori All Blacks, the New Zealand team featuring players of Maori heritage, in Chicago, then tests against Romania and Tonga.

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