It’s ironic really. A rugby sevens tournament gate-crashing a baseball stadium. With rugby and baseball competing against each other for inclusion into the 2016 olympic games, the USA Sevens at PETCO Park is yet another opportunity to get one up on its competitors with a sizzling sevens spectacle. And let’s be honest, when it comes to showcasing a large sporting event, the Americans in their own unique way don’t disappoint!
It’s ironic really. A rugby sevens tournament gate-crashing a baseball stadium. With rugby and baseball competing against each other for inclusion in the 2016 olympic games, the USA Sevens at PETCO Park is yet another opportunity to get one up on its competitors with a sizzling sevens spectacle. And let’s be honest, when it comes to showcasing a large sporting event, the Americans in their own unique way don’t disappoint!
Times have changed too. The old and common perceptions of the USA being behind the 8-ball as far as rugby is concerned could finally be passing - at least when you observe the sevens scene. The Eagles are flying high and making inroads in the IRB World Series, whilst over 120 sevens tournaments are hosted across the States every year – with San Diego’s USA Sevens the obvious pièce de résistance.
Initially, Los Angeles hosted the event where it ran for two years under the management of USA Rugby, the national governing body. In 2006, USA Sevens LLC purchased the license to the event and pledged to give the showpiece a facelift to align it with their vision for the future and to establish it on the international rugby calendar.
Dan Lyle, a major pillar of USA Rugby as a veteran Eagle himself, moved the gig 130 miles down Freeway 5 to San Diego, ‘America’s Finest City’. Rugby in the Major League Baseball's Padres stadium might have raised an eyebrow or two amongst rugby’s traditional aficionados but the success of the last couple of years would suggest that Lyle and his committee have made the right call.
Anyone lucky enough to have been to PETCO Park will have witnessed breathtaking views, magnificent architecture and state-of-the-art facilities. It’s the ideal environment for the classic American sporting experience with its own nuance of having a relaxed yet dynamic atmosphere, reflecting the San Diego lifestyle.
Crucial leg of the Series
What a time for San Diego to be hosting sevens' elite! After last weekend's epic Wellington leg - consisting of major upsets and a post-hooter winning try from England against hosts New Zealand in a pulsating final – the stage has been set.
Traditionally the 4th event in the series, the halfway point, San Diego can often act as a watershed for the big boys wanting to keep themselves in the mix for the title. Importantly you can ask the players themselves and they will be quick to point how much they enjoy playing in San Diego. It seems to break up the circuit nicely for the ‘core’ nations and there is a genuine appreciation from the American fans who are all over anything that involves high pace, high drama, and high intensity in their sports.
After England’s triumph last weekend, expect a resurgent weekend's work from the likes of South Africa and New Zealand with Fiji, Kenya, Argentina and Samoa close behind. Will this be the weekend that Australia fulfil their potential and string a collective run of performances together?
What about the obvious crowd darlings, the USA Eagles? Al Caravelli’s guards have again impressed in patches this season, hitting their Cup quarter-final targets in George and Dubai. How the masses at PETCO would revel in Chris Wyles and co taking their momentum from day one into the pressure cooker of finals day.
It would be foolish of me to use the word 'minnows' in the IRB Sevens World Series, especially following Nieu and the Cook Islands'respective wins over Samoa and Australia last weekend. But who out of the less fancied nations should the crowd get behind when the USA aren’t on?
Japanese Rugby, now in the steady hands of John Kirwan, will get everyone off their seats, with their lightning feet and exciting style of play, but could struggle with the intense physicality that the Samoans and English bring. Mexico, known at the ‘Sepientes’ are an unknown quantity but a potential banana skin that the Welsh, Pumas, and a low-in-confidence and inexperienced Fijian outfit could do without.
As can be expected from North America’s largest rugby event there is a lot more than the action on the field to keep you amused here. Located inside PETCO Park at the famous “Park at the Park”, the USA Sevens Fan Festival is a must see spectacle if you fancy stretching your legs or taking a ‘T’ from the action. In an effort to convey the international experiences that rugby creates the festival is an array of food, dance, music, and gifts. This, in turn, serves to educate and entertain the hordes of San Diegens and the international rugby community that head to California each year.
The Interactive Rugby Zone is an intuitive and fun platform for kids and newcomers to the sport to learn and hone their skills, whilst music lovers get value for their dollar too with artists from the Caribbean, South America, Polynesia, Kenya, and some good ole American Rock a welcome sideshow. Perhaps uniquely in the IRB Sevens World Series, the Fan Festival still gives a direct view of the playing field, whilst the Big Screen ‘Jumbotron’ shows all the action plus coverage of the Six Nations for the early risers.
Take me to Pleasure Town
And what about outside the event itself? Definitely less hit or miss than LA, California’s second biggest City doesn’t disappoint. You get the classic US of A experience, with a tint of latino from the nearby Mexico, all without the materialistic schmultz in your face. Along 70 miles of coastline laced with pristine beaches and ideal temperatures, all year round surfing, sailing, boating... watersports are on tap. Sea World and the Wild Animal Park will keep the kids at bay and the diverse Downtown is full of boutique shopping, hip bars and restaurants. If you fancy yourself as a bit of a Rex Hunt or even a Bear Grylls, escape the buzz and take your mates to the 600,000-acre Anza Borrego Desert State Park, offering hiking, camping, fishing and other local wildlife.
Post rugby, the Gaslamp district will be buzzing and the ‘Kenya Vibe’ gang will be hosting some jamming after-parties that aren’t to be missed. Or why don’t you check out the UCSD college crowd at super-chilled Pacific Beach - PB Bar & Grill and Moondoogies are hot spots for 'people watching'.
Valuable addition to the circuit
As the newest fledging tournament on an already bumper-packed carnival series, where realistically does San Diego fit in conjunction to its contemporaries? For pure carnival and party it might not reach the intensity of a Dubai or a Wellington or the grandiose of a Hong Kong but neither does it try to. Uniquely, Dan Lyle and his team has built a product that brings its own special edge. In conjunction with its duties to the IRB, the USA Sevens is a key catalyst in spreading the game in States. Its ultimate aim is to make the event an captivating platform for the American audience to digest and soak up the game.
It is a tournament with big ambition and astute commercial vision. It was quick to form an official partnership with Ultimate Rugby Sevens, whilst the venture was still in its infancy, recognising the potential scope and reach of such a new media platform. It is such forward thinking that could help take rugby's profile in the US, indeed USA rugby's profile internationally, to a new level. It is such forward thinking that could help reap rewards for sevens, especially with an Olympic carrot dangling over the rugby community.
With the eye of the IOC firmly on the IRB Sevens World Series this season, the circuit is essentially a series of initiations in illustrating how this product could fit in to the Summer Games. The USA could be one of the major beneficiaries of inclusion in the Games, with a large potential pool of athletes and guaranteed filet of extra finance. If the USA get a sniff of a medal, they'll go for it - and only a myopic traditionalist would bet against their chances.
The Superbowl it might not be (let's face it, what is?), but the USA Sevens is causing a stir in national and global circles – watch this UR7s space.
If you're lucky enough to be at PETCO Park this weekend, be sure to come by and say hi to the UR7s crew at the USA Sevens Fan Festival.
If you can't make it this year, tune in to Live Text Commentary on UR7s.com and hopefully we'll see you there next year.