Archives for February 2014

Atlanta 7s Day 2 – What a Difference a Day Makes!

The Women Eagles came charging back in the Day 2 knock-out stage at the Atlanta stop on the 2014  IRB Women’s Sevens World Series to finish 5th and win the plate. The only 2 teams that beat the Eagles in the tournament were Canada and Australia who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively.  New Zealand won the tournament with a 36-0 win over Canada in the final.

Prior to the start of Day 2 play DeepSouthRugby talked with former USA 7s star Nathalie Marchino about where the women’s team seemed to be heading. Day 1 saw the women floundering in pool play. Several starting players who had been integral to the Eagles placing 3rd in the 2013 World Cup had been released from the Olympic training program and the 7s player pool.  After a year only three of the original members of the inaugural Olympic training program remained. Nathalie felt confident that the USA women were now faster and with more talent and potential than ever before, and when the Eagle’s took the field against Canada for the 2nd time in the tournament, they were a different team.  Although they lost 26-12, they were emerging as the side Marchino predicted they could be. By the end of the day they had beaten England (19-5) and Spain (22-0).  In last year’s inaugural season of the Women’s Sevens World Series the Eagles played England twice. They lost both times, 29-12 in Houston and 19-0 in China.

A key part of the rebuilding USA side was cross-over athlete Jessica Javelet.  JJ scored 7 tries over the tournament and had probably 3 times that many try saving tackles.  Strong Day 2 performances from veterans Vix Folyan, Kelly Griffin, Devon Owsiany, & Jillion Potter inspired new players to a level of intensity and energy that renewed hope that this team can be Olympic medalists. After the USA’s second place finish in Houston last year, I asked Potter and former player Kimber Rozier if there was anything they wished journalists would ask.  They laughed and joked about being asked their favorite color. After the Atlanta tournament I again asked Jillion this question. She smiled and said, “Ask me why I like this game.”  Her reply was because of the camaraderie and sense of family that the team develops. She added that there is nothing they wouldn’t do for each other on the pitch. Jillion’s confidence and commitment to the team that she now captains is another factor in the rebuilding of a team that in 2 years should have a good shot at an Olympic medal.

In the interview with Nathalie Marchino I asked about the Eagles’ chances of winning gold against teams from New Zealand and Australia that are bringing in explosive teenagers to their squad when the USA’s new players tend to be in their early to mid-20s. Marchino felt this is a challenge for the USA to be seriously competitive against teams from countries where rugby is a national sport and the athletes grow up with lots more competition and have years to develop skills such as ball handling and distribution. She went on to identify the Eagles’ strength as their physicality and to compliment Coach Suggitt on being excellent at focusing on what the USA women are good at.

The Olympic qualification process has been published and it is very doubtful if the US Men will qualify. Nathalie was asked if the Olympic committee should consider dropping the Men’s side and focusing all financial support on the women to increase chances of having a medal. While recognizing the strong possibility that the men won’t be going to Rio, Marchino felt it was important to maintain support for the men and pointed out that this is the USA and when it comes to the Olympics, we have a way of making things happen.

Atlanta Day 1: Eagles Rebuilding or Disintegrating?

The USA ended pool play with a much needed big win over China that gave them the point differential they needed to squeeze into the cup quarterfinals as the 8th place team. It was not an easy pool, but the Eagles 31-0 loss to Canada and 17-0 loss to Australia made one wonder  what happened to the side that finished 3rd in the World Cup a little over 6 months ago.

The women Eagles who last year showed the potential  to medal in the 2016 Olympics now seem to be quickly drifting to the bottom of  the 12 teams that will go to Rio. Unlike the men who will probably not qualify, the women will in all likelihood qualify. The main reason being they won’t have to face Canada in the regional qualifying tournament because Canada will have received an automatic spot by being one of the top 4 teams in the 2014-15 IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.

The realease of players from last season and the recruitment of players from other sports has one wondering where the Eagles are headed.  Former team standouts  and leading  try scorers Vanesha McGee and Nathalie Marchino have been let go. Marchino had some potential problems with eligibility, but one must wonder why these issues weren’t sorted before she became an integral part of the initial group of women selected for the Olympic Training Center program.  Kimber Rozier is also missed.  Christy Ringgenberg  (age 31) who has not had a dynamic  impact in matches and is often struggling to make critical tackles  is still around.  Kelly Griffin and Jillion Potter  are still outstanding in their work rate. The added pressure on Potter of being team captain seems to have had an adverse effect on her ability to be an important part of linking moves. She was on Saturday too  often leading by crashing straight ahead and taking the ball to ground. On the positive side Jessica Javelet is a breath of speed and energy that might fill a void as she makes the transition from field hockey and American football to rugby. Vix Folayan struggled to inject some speed and power outside against Canada and Australia but was successful against a much weaker China.  Without Marchino and McGee to spark closing moves, Vix (with help from new comer Javelet) has to fill a try scoring gap.

Are the Eagles rebuilding or disintegrating? Has the USA’s best shot of a rugby medal in Rio disappeared in the 6 months since 3rd place at Moscow World Cup? Hopefully Day 2 in Atlanta will see a new USA team emerge from the shambles of Day 1.

Atlanta 7s – Pool Picks and Divinations of Quarterfinals

On Saturday, Feb, 15th, 2014, at 2:06 pm EST the USA women’s 7s team will face Canada in their opening match in the 2nd leg of the IRB Women’s Sevens World Series.  The Eagles placed 7th in the first leg of the world series in Dubai, but this is not a good indicator of how they will do in Atlanta. Last year they finished 9th in Dubai and stormed back to place 2nd in Houston, losing to England in the final (29-12).

There was a contest being held to pick the winners of the pools for Atlanta. I tried to play but couldn’t get through the Silverlight  download to enter … but here are my rather boring predictions of the favorites for the most part.

Pool A:  Canada wins the pool and Australia is 2nd. The USA comes third. China is 4th.  This picks Canada to upset Australia, the winner in Dubai. Canada should have almost a homefield advantage in Atlanta.

Pool B: New Zealand wins and England is 2nd. Netherlands is third and Ireland 4th.  This is a very tough pool. New Zealand won the women’s series in 2012-13 and dominated the 7s World Cup in Moscow in July of last year.  Atlanta will see the return of Portia Woodman to New Zealand. Woodman was the top try scorer in last year’s series but missed the Dubai tournie because of injury. She averaged 2 tries per match at the World Cup.  England has a strong side and could come back to face NZ in the final. I flipped a coin between Ireland and Netherlands, and both have the potential to upset England.

Pool C: The order of finish will be Russia, Spain, Brazil, and Japan. This is the easiest pool. Brazil is lucky because they will end up having a good chance at being the best 3rd place team if they play Russia and Spain  very tight and get a lot of points against Japan.

Now for the more daring picks of who will be facing whom in the knockout rounds …

Match 19             Best 1st v 2nd Best 3rd                       Russia v USA                      w = Russia

Match 20             Best 2nd v 2nd Best 2nd                      Spain v England                 w = England

Match 21             2nd Best 1st v Best 3rd                       NZ v Brazil                           w = NZ

Match 22             3rd Best 1st v 3rd Best 2nd                 Canada v Australia           w – Canada

Match 23             3rd Best 3rd v 3rd Best 4th                 Netherlands v China       w=Netherlands

Match 24             Best 4th v 2nd Best 4th                       Ireland v Japan                  w= Ireland

The point differentials in pool matches will determine the order of finish after win/loss records. The picks above are based on potential to run up high score in easy pool matches and a lot of assumptions based on fuzzy reasoning.

It is tough to pick Russia as winner over USA in Atlanta in the Cup Quarterfinal, but the USA will be coming out of one hell of a pool and Russia will be looking forward to their first really hard match.

Now to pack my extra layers for some chilly weather to go  along with the sizzling rugby in Atlanta.

A First Person Perspective of the Las Vegas Sevens Rugby Tournament

By Alison Swallow

“You’ve never seen anything like this, I guarantee it,” Vince grinned, sliding the last few ciders into our cooler and covering them with ice. It was a sunny Saturday morning in January and we were getting ready to head over to Sam Boyd Stadium for the fifth annual Las Vegas Sevens Rugby Tournament.

I raised an eyebrow at my boyfriend and took a sleepy sip of coffee. “It’s a rugby match, Honey. I’ve been to rugby matches before. A bunch of guys in short shorts huddling, cuddling and chasing a ball around.”

He laughed and shook his head, “Just wait and see. You have no idea.”

Since 2010, Las Vegas, Nevada has played host to the largest annual rugby tournament in the United States. We are the fourth of nine stops on the international HSBC Sevens World Series which continues on from here to New Zealand. The Las Vegas Sevens draws upwards of 70,000 fans from all over the world to my glitzy hometown for three days of fierce, fast competition.

The tournament is growing as rapidly in prestige as it is in attendance. Sixteen different countries send teams and the weekend matches are now broadcast live in the US on NBC Sports, with the feed being shown in 142 countries worldwide. The tournament serves as part of the qualification process for the 2016 Rio Olympics where Rugby 7s will be one of the 2 new Olympic sports.

Even the City of Las Vegas seems to be taking more of an interest in the event; although, only an estimated 5% of the crowd is made up of locals like myself. Sixteen area elementary schools were each assigned a team, and the students spent the last several weeks learning about the cultures and countries of the players. The 2,000 children involved in the program were then invited to attend the tournament and root for their team.

That much, I knew. But, as I stepped through the gates of the stadium on that Saturday morning, I quickly realized that Vince was right – all of my facts, figures and lovely anecdotes about school children hadn’t remotely prepared me for the Las Vegas Sevens.

The first thing you notice are the costumes. The crowd swarms around you, looking like a Halloween party mixed with a Mardi Gras parade. I found myself surrounded by more eccentric characters than you could fit into a Dr. Seuss book. There were hula skirts and hard hats, dapper gents sporting monocles, Vikings and vampires, Beatles and bananas, priests and Playboy bunnies, Muppets, unicorns, women in catsuits, men in kilts, a dozen Uncle Sams and at least one Abraham Lincoln.

The costumes didn’t make sense. They didn’t have to.

A bearded Miss Piggy in pink lycra sauntered up to me, wrapped an arm around my waist and asked in a deep baritone, “Are we having fun yet?” There was nothing to do but laugh with the sheer delight of it all. Indeed we are, Pig.

Most of the other fans – those that hadn’t come in fancy dress attire – had outfitted themselves in the colors of their favorite team. The flags of sixteen nations were tied around waists, draped over shoulders and painted on excited faces. As we found seats in the stands, everywhere I looked I could see great swathes of green and gold, black and white, red and blue.

Then, just after noon, the Canadian and Welsh teams took the field and a whole new excitement began. For those of you who are more familiar with the 15-a-side format, as I was, go see a sevens game immediately. With only 7 men a side and 7 minutes a half the matches move from one to the next at breakneck speed, but each is no less ferocious than a standard 15 a side rugby game. The hits are hard, the breakaways are aggressive and the athleticism is incredible. Several times all I could see were walls of color colliding like forces of nature down on the pitch.

The qualifiers flew by. Early wins from Canada, Australia and England had the sections around me on their feet and screaming. Some of the pool games were evenly matched, like the pairing of New Zealand and Fiji (12 to 7), while others (Samoa beat Portugal 35 to 0 – ouch!) were absolute blowouts. Finally, as the winter sun reached its afternoon apex and we all began to strip off our warm outer layers, the last of the pool games began: USA vs. Spain. The stands erupted into madness as the American team took the field and chants of “U-S-AAA!” echoed through the stadium.

The game itself was high-octane entertainment. The US took the advantage during the first half and held it through the rest of the match, ceding only one try to the Spaniards. During the 2 minute halftime, a fan of the Spanish team was escorted onto the pitch and allowed to dance with the Bee mascot. Then, just as he was really getting into his shimmy-shake, the American Bald Eagle mascot came barreling in from the sidelines and surprise tackled the fan. The stands roared with laughter. I was surprised to see even the Spanish supporters chuckling and clapping good-naturedly.

The match finished on a high note for the American fans. My little group decided to take a break before the Bowl games began, so we fought our way through the ocean of people to the parking lot. Vince’s rugby-loving uncles and their friends had beaten us there and already had the tiny tailgate grill smoking and stacked with mouth-watering burgers. A few cold beers were passed around and, much to the delight of my girl friends, the former ruggers began to sing. They rolled from one bawdy rugby song to another, their harmonies floating into the air and mixing with the barbecue smoke. I smiled and shook my head in wonder as I listened and chewed. When the afternoon light began to dim, we put away the grill and the parking lot beers and made our way back into the stadium.

The schedule of matches continued smoothly through the evening. We were into the qualifier games for the bowl and so many of them were terribly one-sided. Kenya demolished Spain 24-0, Scotland wiped the floor with Portugal 31-7, and Fiji beat Uruguay 38-14.

At one point, after I had tired of watching Uruguay’s tiny team charging after the Fijian behemoths, I closed my eyes and leaned my head back to eavesdrop on some of the wonderful conversations going on around me. Dozens of different accents, voices of all tones and timbres, and several languages I’d never even heard reached my ears.

“I just love a good scrum, don’t you? It’s all about the shorts…”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Scotland, get off your pasty arses and RUN!”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Australia’s defense is just too strong this year – we don’t have a chance.”

“Did you see the Jackson 5 over there? Hilarious!”

“GO CANADA!!”

“Canada isn’t even playing right now!”

“Rugby – it’s just a big, crazy community, isn’t it?”

And there it was. I turned my head sharply to see the man who had made that final comment. Wearing a faded All-Blacks jersey, he was small, frail and couldn’t have been a day under 80. But in one sentence, this man who had probably never played a game of rugby in his life had perfectly summed it all up for me.

Because that’s what I realized over the course of last weekend. Only a very small part of the Sevens tournament is what happens on the pitch. Don’t get me wrong, the play on the field down below was thrilling… but there was something even greater happening in the stands, in line for lemonade and in the parking lot. We, the overdressed, the underdressed, the barely dressed and the cross-dressed fans had indeed formed a big, crazy community.

Saturday faded into Sunday, a haze of burgers and songs about lovely ladies with reputations and something called a Rang-a-dang-do and fast, ruthless rugby; I began to notice the community atmosphere more and more. People were rooting for their teams, but they were also cheering for all great acts of rugby, no matter who committed them. When Kenya won their semi-finals bowl match, a pretty South African woman laughingly throw her arms around a grizzled stranger in a Wallabies jersey and they did an impromptu tango. All of us grinned and clapped when the Samoan player passed the ball at the very last second so his teammate could score the try. There was a roar of appreciation for every great breakaway run, every perfectly executed tackle. The entire stadium held its collective breath when the scrappy Canadian team came from behind at in the final moments of the match and ripped the third place trophy from the outstretched hands of the Samoans.

And it makes sense! The only sport I know in which the players tear each other apart on the pitch, then run off to the bar afterward, arms slung around each other’s shoulders – why shouldn’t the fans be the same?

For two days, I chatted with people who had traveled as far as Edinburgh, Capetown, Sydney and Nairobi. I found myself high-fiving Canadians, fist-bumping Brits and hugging Kenyans. The earth felt so small, as though it could easily fit into Sam Boyd Stadium. In a world increasingly divided by politics, religion, economics and so many other hot-point issues; it is a beautiful thing to stand in a crowd of 70,000 people united by mutual respect and the common love of a sport.

The final game finished, and the South African Spring Boks barreled into a solid win against the New Zealand All-Blacks. It was all over – time to go home, back to work, to the real world. I found myself sorry to leave my 70,000-strong family. I looked over at Vince and said, “I don’t want it to end!” He grinned. Then he took my hand and dragged me down the steps of stands, two at a time, fighting the hundreds of people going in the opposite direction. When we reached the bottom, he lowered me over the bars and onto the pitch. I sat down on the matted grass, sinking my fingers into the divots from the players’ cleats. Hundreds of others had the same idea and soon we were surrounded by dancing priests and laughing pandas, skipping unicorns and spinning Uncle Sams. The Muppets started a pick-up game and Abraham Lincoln ran willy-nilly around the pitch, tackling unsuspecting fans. It was a perfect end to a perfect weekend.

“Hey Vince!” I shouted, over the noise of the revelers, “You were right! I’d never seen anything like this!”

And I know for sure that I’ll be going back, year after year. This is my community.

So let’s raise a parking lot beer to the Sevens and to the greatest sport in the world – RUGBY!

Now who knows this one? “I’ve been a wild rover for many a year…”