Had USA Women’s 7s coach Ric Suggit been able to attend last weekend’s Women’s Club 7s Championship, then he would have been handing out invitations to national camps, according to Berkeley coach Brandon Sparks. In addition to tournament MVP Kelly Griffin, who is already known on the national 7s scene, Sparks nominated Irene Gardner as an up-and-comer to watch.
“Irene had a breakout weekend,” Sparks said. “She was all over the place and almost scored tries at will all tournament. She also is one of the hardest hitters we have and had a couple of crackers this weekend.”
The 26-year-old San Francisco native is playing in her second 7s season with the Berkeley All Blues, who won the first USA Rugby-sanctioned Women’s Club 7s Championship on Sunday. Gardner played three years at the University of California, alongside current teammates Lucy Croy and Tisha Waki, but didn’t sample 7s until she moved to Atlanta, where she was pursuing her masters in nutrition. There, she learned the game from such rugby luminaries like Heather Hale and Patty Jervey, who played for the Harlequins last weekend.
When she returned to San Francisco in 2010, she joined the All Blues, who were prepping several of its members for the Rugby World Cup.
“I learned really quickly that this was to my benefit; an opportunity to learn from and play with some of the best in the country,” Gardner reflected on her initial intimidation. “With every practice, training session and match, my goal is to build my skills and understanding of the game. There has yet to be an All Blues practice that a few light bulbs haven’t gone off.”
Gardner is playing in her second season with coach Laura Cabrera, and Sparks joined the squad from the Boston Belles this year.
“This summer we have been lucky to have two great coaches who complemented each other well, even beyond coaching as they showed up to Nationals in matching plaid shorts,” Gardner joked. “Laura’s intensity, passion for rugby, and knowledge of the game are what make every practice valuable.
“Brandon has been a great addition to our club,” Gardner continued. “Every practice he reminded us that if we continue to “do work,” we had a shot at that title. They always believed in us. I am so appreciative of their time and dedication.”
The All Blues started out well enough on Saturday during pool play, but lost to NOVA and tied the Boston Belles. Even with the star power of players like Nathalie Marchino and Kelly Griffin, the team had yet to realize its full potential.
But Sunday was a different story.
“After every practice and game, Nat reminds us to reflect upon three things we personally did well,” Gardner said. “Come Sunday, all those things we built upon showed, and each and every member of our team contributed to some beautiful, well played rugby. We all trusted each other. Regardless of who was next to me, I was confident in our cohesiveness, dependability and determination to get work done (as Brandon would say). Everyone had a hand in that title this weekend.”
But everyone didn't make an impact like Gardner did. "She is a smooth operator, always cool, calm and collected,” Sparks said. “You can see it after she scores a try (which she did often). She just gets up, takes the ball to the kicker, and gets ready for the next one. When she has the ball in hand, she’s deadly. She is like a snake charmer with ball fakes, just freezes people. Then there is the hitting. She is a devastating tackler – I know from experience as she lit me up in a training session once (grass was wet, that's my story). All kidding aside she can straight deliver highlight reel hits and does it on a consistent basis. She is another all-around good rugby player who is a shining example of what this sport is all about."
For Gardner, the icing on the cake was sharing the championship with older sister Elaine. The two have been Berkeley teammates for the last year and a half.
“I love playing on the same team as Elaine,” Gardner said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have shared a national championship experience with her. She is an amazing athlete, from rugby, to bowling, to table tennis - you better watch out! My sis is my hero, on and off the rugby pitch. She is constantly challenging herself and finding ways to make an impact in the lives of others. I generally do not correct people when I am mistaken for Elaine; I take it as a compliment.
“I remember the first time we played against each other,” Gardner continued. “Of course we ended up in a one-on-one scenario; it was like a mirror. I guess that’s what makes playing with her so much fun. I know what she’s thinking and she knows what I’m thinking, always. When she cut, I cut; when she sidestepped, she sidestepped. It was quite entertaining.”
The Gardner sisters are fortunate to have a very supportive family, who has traveled to ever corner of the country and Canada to watch their daughters play. “We decided to make it easier on them and at least play for the same team.”
And now Irene is firmly rooted in the Berkeley family, which has high hopes for the upcoming Women’s Premier League season.
“The momentum of this weekend is carrying us right into 15s, where I look forward to my first season under Kathy Flores,” Gardner said. “The Kathy/Brandon duo will certainly not disappoint.”
The sentiment is likely mutual.