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…”
“Scotland, get off your pasty arses and RUN!”
“Australia’s defense is just too strong this year – we don’t have a chance.”
“Did you see the Jackson 5 over there? Hilarious!”
“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…”