No one who loves rugby could have watched last year’s USA 7s Collegiate Rugby Championship from the grandstands at sparkling new PPL Park outside Philadelphia, or from anywhere in America on live network TV, without feeling the “Holy Cow” factor.
No one who has played rugby with passion, from thick-trunked, crusty loosehead prop survivors of club battles on muddy pitches from decades past, to today’s lean, muscular, and spectacularly match fit college players, no lover of this game of ours, from graybeard to high school newbie, could have watched the 2011 CRC Sevens without being proud to say: “This is what American rugby looks like today.”
And what American rugby has become is on display at the CRC Sevens tournament, a showcase of some of the best college rugby programs and players in the nation on a big time NBC network television stage live from a tented pavilion Europeanstyle professional sports stadium swelling with more than ten thousand cheering fans.
Best of all for fans watching in person or on TV, the 7s tournament format offers a continuous series of matches between the 16 collegiate teams for two full days, with new matches scheduled like clockwork every 22 minutes from 9:58 a.m. until 7:30 p.m. on Saturday and from 8:59 a.m. until the championship final kicks off at 5:20 a.m. Sunday afternoon.
Both days fans can take advantage of the world’s largest rugby block party featuring pick-up touch rugby matches, sports apparel vendors, attractions for kids, and the aroma of classic Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches filling the concourses and adjoining areas surrounding the stadium. Last year’s Saturday night post-game concert featured a kickass performance by Boston’s Irish rock band the Dropkick Murphys. This year, Breathe Carolina, 12 Stones and Yellowcard headline each night.
In this the third year of the CRC, American rugby looks and feels like it has finally arrived after decades of promising development.
“It was superb,” said University of Maryland Rugby Coach Jeff Soeken, who attended last June’s CRC Sevens as a spectator and who was delighted to have his club invited to compete in this year’s tournament along with five other first-time tourney teams from the University of Delaware, Life University, North Carolina State, and the University of Wisconsin.
Returning from last year’s championship triumph is Dartmouth, the only Ivy League university represented. Led by coach Alex Magleby, who was named this spring as coach of the USA national 7s squad, Dartmouth shocked defending 2010 CRC Sevens champion Utah in the first round 17-12 after trailing by seven points at the half.
Big Green then dispatched Notre Dame, Boston College, Penn State and Central Washington to earn a title match with the scholar athletes from perennial rugby power at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Dartmouth dominated from start to finish in a 32-10 rout of a proud Army squad in a match punctuated in the final minutes with a leaping somersault into goal by Dartmouth winger Adbul Shakoor to cap the scoring.
Also returning from last year is the University of California, the 25 time national collegiate champion in rugby 15s and led by legendary coach and former All American player Jack Clark. The California team was described in a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer sports page as “The Gold Standard” in its Sunday June 5 edition, the same day Cal was upset 21-5 in the Quarter Finals by, once again, Utah.
The defending champions were then dethroned 12-7 in the semifinals by the Black Knights.
This year Utah was defeated in a tournament-qualifying match by Life University, a major rugby power for decades in the United States, in its bid to return to the field of 16 in the 2012 edition of the CRC Sevens.
(USA 7s holds a qualifier tournament in Las Vegas before the USA 7s international event in February. Life beat out 31 teams, including Utah in the final before 30,000 fans at Sam Boys Stadium.)
Other returning teams include Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Temple, Penn State, Navy and Arizona. In addition during the same weekend there will be a 16 team boys high school sevens tournament and an eight-team high school girls tournament played at Drexel University athletic fields in West Philadelphia. There are plans to hold the championship finals of each high school tournament in PPL Park on Sunday morning.
The venue, PPL (for Pennsylvania Power and Light) Park, is spectacular. Located on wide banks of the Delaware River directly beneath the Commodore Barry Bridge that links Pennsylvania with New Jersey, the architecture of the stadium seems to merge as one with the great steel bridge.
The home of the MLS Philadelphia Union has been playing the sellout crowds of 18,500 since its opening day two years ago. It feels like a rugby pitch rather than a converted football stadium. And from the intimacy of PPL Park spectators can see ocean going tanker vessels passing underneath the Commodore Barry Bridge while playing their trade on a major working river in the United State of America.
PPL Park, like the rugby tournament it hosts June 2-3, is a thrilling sight no matter how often your see it.