San Diego is about to host one of the biggest international sporting events to ever descend upon the city, and you couldn't buy a clue—or a care—could you? You have no idea what I'm even talking about. Not the faintest, foggiest notion in the world.
Unless, of course, you saw the hordes of fans swarming in and out of Petco Park last year during the USA Rugby Sevens Tournament and thought to yourself, Mmmmm, the Padres are starting spring training early this year.
Maybe you satiated your curiosity (and thirst) at a downtown pub filled with flag-waving partisans or even went to the tournament yourself. Maybe you liked it. Maybe you want to go back, even though you still aren't sure what happened the last time around.
Then again, you could be an expatriate from London, Cape Town or Apia (it's the capital of Samoa, and, yeah, I had to look it up) living in San Diego or a visitor from Buenos Aires, Sydney or Nairobi reading this in the cab from Lindbergh. And you, too, crave answers about what's about to go down, downtown.
I'm glad you asked.
Um—what exactly is rugby again?
This is me sighing (sigh) and rolling my eyes (eye-roll). It would take too long to explain the intricacies in this space. But, in broad terms, rugby is a cross between football and fútbol, except with less padding than the former and more balls—figuratively speaking—than the latter.
In biblical terms, English people begat soccer, soccer begat rugby, rugby begat football and football begat chubby, drunken fans standing bare-chested in sub-zero weather with Styrofoam blocks of cheese on their heads.
In simple terms, rugby is one of the toughest, fastest, most thrilling and chaotic sports this side of sheep tackling—which, as it happens, was popular halftime entertainment on the pitch at rugby matches in New Zealand before it was banned in 2005. But I digress.
Wait. Why do they insist on calling them rugby “matches” instead of “games,” played on rugby “pitches” instead of “fields”?
British people: can't live with 'em, can't get 'em to explain why they might say “that bloody geezer mucked himself in the queue for the loo” when “Scott pissed himself waiting for the bathroom” would suffice.
What's the difference between rugby “sevens” and rugby “eights,” “nines” or whatever?
Rugby typically features teams of 15 slugging it out for 80 brutal minutes. Sevens rugby is played with (you guessed it, Sherlock) only seven players to a side. The matches are significantly shorter (15 minutes on average), a helluva lot faster and, in most cases, more exciting. But don't just take my word for it.
“Sevens is easier to follow and understand,” Brian Vizard, executive director of the United States Rugby Football Foundation (USRFF), says. “You don't get lost in the action quite as easily as you might with 15s. Americans like action, and they like hitting, and they like scoring. In rugby, especially sevens, those things are constant.”
So how come rugby isn't more popular in the U.S.?
The diplomatic answer is that rugby is considered (at least in rugby circles) to be one of the country's fastest-growing sports among youths and teens. But while kids in places like South Africa, New Zealand and England are weaned on the rugby teat, most Americans don't get their first initiation to the sport until college. And then there's all the acronyms—NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, even (gasp) NASCAR, etc.—to contend with.
“We're always going to be competing with the big boys,” Vizard, a former captain of the U.S. national team, says. “But I think the sport has been booming—especially among young people—in the last several years. And once people get their first taste of rugby, especially the sevens, they're usually hooked.”
Still, for expats like South African native Ted Van Der Merwe—organizer of a sizable local “Saffa” expat group—most Americans are still well behind the learning curve.
“Lots of Americans don't understand it all,” Van Der Merwe says, “which is sad because it's really something to see.”
But opportunities to see top-tier rugby in the flesh in the U.S. are few and far between. Which is what makes the USA Sevens in San Diego such an anomaly.
“It's very exciting and something different,” Van Der Merwe says. “It's an opportunity to see the Springboks play, and you just don't get that kind of opportunity in the states very often. We're all really looking forward to it.”
Um—what the hell is a Springbok?
It's an antelope. And the mascot of the South African national team. For my purposes, taking into account that my wife is South African, it's an animal to be treated with the utmost reverence. You know, insofar as one can be reverent about a funny-looking deer.
What is a scrum?
It doesn't really matter, because there are no conventional scrums in “sevens” rugby. In more immediate terms, it's basically what would ensue if somebody dropped a free keg of beer in between a group of Australian and New Zealand rugby fans.
What is the “haka,” and why will it cause me to soil myself?
It's a pre-game ceremony performed by New Zealand's national team, the All Blacks. There are variations, but the haka is basically a traditional M¯aori war dance that includes a lot of frightening shouts and gestures meant to both motivate and intimidate. Stand near the All Blacks when they do the haka and you'll know why you need to change your trousers.
Why all the hoo-ha over the USA Sevens?
For starters, it's the biggest (and, more or less, only) major international rugby event held in North America. In 1999, the International Rugby Board (IRB)—the sport's global governing body—initiated the IRB Sevens World Series to increase the sport's exposure by pitting the world's rugby nations against one another every year.
With the Rugby World Cup occurring only every four years (the last one finished in October), the Sevens World Series provides a chance to spread the rugby gospel to places—like, say, San Diego—that don't normally host such events.
“It's an awesome sight just to see a stadium full of rugby fans and to be able to see the United States compete on an international level, let alone in San Diego,” Erik Anderson, recruitment officer for San Diego's Old Aztecs rugby club, says. “I love football, I love baseball, but there's something special about watching your country compete at an event like this.”
Teams compete for the Sevens World Series title by accumulating points depending on how they finish in eight (seven apparently wasn't poetic enough) tournaments. During the 2007-2008 series, teams have already played in Dubai, South Africa and New Zealand and, after San Diego, will play in Hong Kong, Adelaide (Australia), London and Edinburgh (Scotland).
Why San Diego?
Well, it isn't because Oklahoma City was all booked up. Besides the fact that we live in a perpetual Pleasantville climate, San Diego also has a rich rugby history.
The USRFF—a charitable organization entrusted with promoting the sport nationally—is based here. The city boasts several youth, high school, college and club teams (see sidebar), the U.S. national team (the Eagles) trains in San Diego regularly, and one of the most revered rugby clubs in the entire country, the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC), calls the city home.
“OMBAC has been one of the top programs in the country for the last 20 years,” Vizard, himself an OMBAC member, says. “They kind of set the base. And OMBAC—along with the Old Aztecs—had a lot to do with helping bring the Sevens here.”
One man in particular, OMBAC chairman Bob Watkins, was influential in bringing the USA Sevens to San Diego in 2007 after it had spent the previous three years in Los Angeles. Watkins has served in a number of power positions both in the rugby world—he's a past president of U.S.A. Rugby (the sport's national governing body)—and in local politics (he's currently president of the San Diego County Board of Education).
Watkins—who calls rugby his “passion” and estimates that some 100 OMBAC members have played for the national team—was an integral component (along with, he says, Mayor Jerry Sanders, City Councilmember Kevin Faulconer and county Supervisor Ron Roberts) in convincing U.S.A. Rugby and the IRB to move the event to San Diego.
And while Watkins is currently running (as a “no-nonsense conservative Republican”) for U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter's seat in the 52nd Congressional District, he says he wouldn't miss the Rugby Sevens for anything.
“Last year, it was spectacular,” Watkins says. “It's fun to see how the game has come to San Diego and how a lot of people have embraced it. At the same time, it has this wonderful international flavor of people coming from all over the world and the U.S.”
Are people actually going to travel to San Diego just for some rugby tournament?
You bet your sweet ass they are. Sixteen different countries will be represented, along with tens of thousands of fans. The competition breaks down into four pools with four teams each. The first day of competition (Feb. 9), each team plays the other three teams in their pool (for the U.S., that means South Africa, England and Mexico). Depending on how each team does, they advance to compete on the second day (Feb. 10) in pursuit of four different honors named mostly after dinnerware; the Cup (for the overall championship), the Plate, the Bowl and the Shield.
In addition, there are various other activities planned (again, see sidebar), including an International Fan Festival at Petco Park and the San Diego Rugby Invitational tournament at Robb Field in Ocean Beach in the days (Feb. 7 and 8) leading up to the Sevens themselves.
Isn't Petco Park kind of a strange place to hold a rugby tournament?
It would seem so. But those in the know suggest that the venue works swimmingly.
“I knew people would love to come to San Diego, but I was a little uncertain about how user-friendly Petco Park would be,” Vizard says. “I was pleasantly surprised. It met and exceeded all my expectations.”
What country will have the rowdiest fans?
Well, there are rowdy supporters representing every country. Other than the obvious, the Kenyan contingent is known to be particularly boisterous, and you can bet your sweet Tijuana that Mexican fans will represent. But, in fact, the multi-culti stew is precisely what makes the crowd almost as entertaining as the action.
“The atmosphere in the stadium was crazy last year, and it has the opportunity to be just as crazy this year,” Vizard says. “At the same time, this is one of those events that everybody can enjoy. You never have to worry about feeling threatened at a rugby game. People can get a little wild, but it's all in good fun. All the violence happens down on the field.”
Doesn't that go against the conventional wisdom of rugby attracting a lot of drunken, violent louts?
Drunken, maybe. But rugby is known for being just as cordial off the field—during the traditional post-match social (or Third Half)—as it is brutal on the field. It's hardly uncommon for players (and fans) to share a beer with the guys who were trying to gouge their eyes out just minutes before.
“There's a lot of integrity in rugby,” Anderson says. “Things can get rowdy, but rugby players and fans are also controlled and respectful—most of the time. But what happens at a Raiders game just isn't going to happen with rugby fans.”
What's the difference between “shooting the boot” and “giving 'em the boots”?
“Shooting the boot” involves someone chugging beer out of a rugby cleat. Giving someone the boots means raking a downed opposing player with the same cleats, typically as a way of encouraging him to either let go of the ball or get the hell out of your way.
Sure seems like rugby is kind of a meat-headed sausage fest, doesn't it?
It's true that the sport is largely male-dominated. But it's much more egalitarian than, say, football. Many colleges have women's sides, and there are numerous women's club teams (including the San Diego Surfers—look at the freaking sidebar, already). On an international scale, the 2009 Rugby World Cup Sevens will include a women's championship for the first time. But, yes, the perception still remains that the sport is breeding grounds for Frat Boys Gone Wild.
“Oftentimes, you still have to explain that ‘Yes, women can play contact sports,'” Leanna Corpus, vice president of the San Diego Surfers, says. “Women play a more technically precise game—we don't just rely on brute strength like a lot of the men—but that's not to say that women aren't strong. Let me tell you, they are.”
No need to tell me. Both my wife and my sister have played rugby. In fact, my sister is four months' pregnant, and she could still kick your ass.
Do you know any good rugby songs I can sing with my kids?
Um—not that I'm aware of. While there are many songs at your disposal (“If I Was the Marrying Kind,” “I Used to Work in Chicago” and “Jesus Can't Play Rugby” come to mind), they tend to vary by club, region and degree of vulgarity. Most involve an escalating tendency toward crude and sophomoric humor. If you've seen The Aristocrats, you'll get the idea. If you laughed during that movie, you'd probably like the songs. If you didn't, you'll probably have the Anti-Defamation League on speed dial after you hear them.
So what are the games to watch this weekend?
Aside from the championship matches on the second day, the U.S. has some doozies against South Africa and England and a border war with Mexico all on the first day.
All this talk is getting me thirsty. Where can I go to get a drink?
Well, it's the Gaslamp, so pick your poison. But, like soccer, rugby is a sport that breeds best in the Petri dish of pub culture. Canadian fans have already staked out a headquarters at Henry's Pub. South Africans, Aussies and Kiwis will probably be found at Bondi Bar & Lounge. There are a host of others, but any place with bar stools and beer will probably do just fine.
So, who are the teams to beat at this year's tournament?
New Zealand, New Zealand, New Zealand. Those are some tough hombres. But that doesn't mean that other teams—like South Africa, Samoa, Wales, England, Argentina, Australia, France and Fiji (which won the USA Sevens last year)—won't have a shot.
“It's pretty safe money to say that the Kiwis will probably be in the final,” Vizard says. “But one of the things about Sevens is there is a lot of parity. Anything can happen.”
What's the team with the most compelling storyline?
Kenya. Despite all the turmoil back home, the Kenyans have put in surprisingly strong showings in the first three Sevens World Series stops.
Can you tell me why the USA is so terrible at rugby?
It's not that the Eagles are terrible. Or even bad. In fact, the team is currently ranked No. 19 in the world and is the defending Olympic champion. Granted, only about the top 10 or so teams are truly elite, and rugby hasn't been played competitively at the Olympics since 1924, but we'll take what we can get. And, considering that most of the Eagles have day jobs, the team is relatively phenomenal.
“We're competing with guys whose only job is to play rugby,” Vizard says. “The U.S. has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. It wasn't long ago that the team—I don't want to say it was embarrassing, but it was close to it.”
Why should I bother if the Americans probably don't stand much of a chance of winning the thing?
The team will at least compete for one of the four (Cup, Bowl, Plate, Shield) honors. Plus, $50 for two days in the “Party Zone” isn't outrageous. Besides, the Padres don't start spring training for another month and it'll be almost a year before the Chargers' next playoff flameout. What are you going to do, watch the Pro Bowl?
Which team will you root for?
That's a tough call. Sure, I want the home side to put in a good showing. But I also have my ancestral heritage—I'm a one-man European Union—to consider. My wife is South African. I played college rugby with guys from Chile and Argentina. My coach was from Australia. Nobody this side of the creators of South Park dislikes Canada. I really like the way “Fiji” and “Samoa” roll off the tongue. So, I'm pretty much rooting for everybody. Except for maybe the West Indies, but only because I was educated in public schools and don't know where the hell that is. What else do you got?
That's pretty much it. I think I'm good.
Well, uh, there's supposed to be 24 questions. We only have 22.
Why do you need 24?
And there's 23! You see, I kinda had a theme going with the whole “24/Sevens” thing.
Yeah, it's real cute. Everybody's very impressed.
Thanks. But it doesn't really work if we call the thing “23/Sevens.” So ask me something else. Anything.
Wow. Um, OK. This is a little awkward.
Tell me about it.
Well, I heard that your wife threatened you with grievous bodily harm if you don't root for the Springboks. So, I'm curious, who are you going to be cheering for when South Africa plays the U.S.?
Oops. I'm terribly sorry. We're out of time.
Click the page numbers for our guide to the games:
Five Days of Glory
A rundown of all the events (or most of them, anyway) leading up to and during the USA Rugby Sevens Tournament, along with a few local rugby links to digest.USA Rugby Sevens Tournament (and Fan Festival)Dates: Feb. 9-10 (Pool format on Feb. 9 and championship bracket on Feb. 10).Location: Petco ParkTeams: France, New Zealand, Scotland, Wales (Pool A); Australia, Fiji, Samoa, West Indies (Pool B); Argentina, Canada, Chile, Kenya (Pool C); England, South Africa, Mexico, U.S. (Pool D). Times: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. (both days). Prices: $25-$215 (single-day pass), $50-$400 (two-day pass). All seats are general admission in each seating section (“Party Zone,” “Try Zone,” “Field Level,” etc.). www.usasevens.comSan Diego Invitational Rugby TournamentDates: Feb. 7-8Location: Robb Field in Ocean Beach. Teams: Various local, regional and national teams competing in seven different divisions (Youth, Touch, High School, College, Club, Master's and International Women). Times: 9 a.m.-5 p.m.Price: Freewww.usasevens.comU.S. Rugby Football Foundation EventsDays: Feb. 6, 8-9 Events: USA Rugby Sevens Kickoff Reception (Feb. 6), USRFF Scrumble (it's a pun on “scrum” and “scramble,” not a typo) Golf Tournament (Feb. 8) and the USRFF Annual Dinner (Feb. 9). Locations: Hall of Champions in Balboa Park (Kickoff Reception), Salt Creek Golf Club in Chula Vista (Scrumble Golf Tournament) and the Omni Hotel, 675 L St., Downtown (Annual Dinner). Times: 5 p.m. (reception), noon (scrumble), 7:30 p.m. (dinner). Prices: $40 a person (reception), $200 (scrumble) and $150 (dinner). www.usrugbyfoundation.orgSan Diego Rugby ClubsNorth County Gurkhas (www.gurkharugby.com) Old Aztecs Rugby Football Club (www.oldaztecsrfc.com)Old Mission Beach Athletic Club (OMBAC) Rugby (www.ombac.org)San Diego Armada Rugby Football Club (www.sdarmada.org) San Diego Surfers Women's Rugby Club (www.sdsurfersrugby.com)
Several local colleges and universities also field club teams, including SDSU, USD, UCSD and Point Loma Nazarene University.
— Nathan Dinsdale