Who is Ned Haig? Why, he’s the Scot responsible for the game of 7s. Back in 1883, while his club, Melrose RFC, floundered financially, the captain attracted area clubs to participate in a tournament that featured a radically different version of the game. The tournament proceeds saved the club, but the ramifications of that short-term goal have paved the way for 7s into the Olympics.
Fast forward 130 years, and Haig’s legacy continues to inspire – just ask Kurt Mockenhaupt. A fixture in the Mid-Atlantic rugby scene, Mockenhaupt was looking to host a 7s rugby tournament for regional high schoolers, but the aptly named Ned Haig 7s soon evolved into something much more significant.
Originally, Mockenhaupt, the Potomac Rugby Foundation and Cumberland Valley RFC created the Ned Haig 7s to fill a void. There are plenty of 15s national championships, all-star tournaments and open camps to which higher-level selectors may attend and assess countrywide talent, but that system doesn’t yet exist for youth 7s.
“I think that [a regional 7s tournament will help find] players that have not been identified, or have fallen through the cracks, or are doing something different like 7s instead of 15s,” Mockenhupt said. “When we go into the High School All-American pool, they’re asked to play both. They have opportunities for both. This could become a player identification opportunity for 7s.”
If the Ned Haig 7s, which occurred last weekend in Mechanicsburg, Pa., had remained a 7s selection vehicle for regional teams and universities, then the event would have been a resounding success on its own. But some serendipity intervened, and Mockenhaupt was able to shed even more light on the tournament and its players.
About five years ago, Mockenhaupt abetted rugby’s entrance into the Commonwealth Games, the State Games of Virginia. Thirty-one states host annual State Games, and every two years the respective state champions convene at the State Games of America (SGA). The Olympic-style event contests championships in close to 30 sports, with divisions ranging from under-8 to 70-plus. Familiar with the SGA, Mockenhaupt was delighted to learn that Harrisburg was named host city for the 2013 iteration – marking only the second time the SGA was held on the east coast – and as fortune would have it, the timing coincided with Ned Haig 7s.
One can surmise what happened next.
The president of the Commonwealth Games connected Mockenhaupt with the Keystone Games, hosts of the 2013 SGA, and the Virginia native proposed that the 8th biennial event include rugby. The hosts agreed to add 7s as an exhibition sport under one condition: Due to the late inclusion and advanced stage of planning for the SGA, Mockenhaupt had to organize the rugby tournament himself.
No problem there, because as mentioned, the Ned Haig 7s was already in motion. That said, the late notice to rugby teams restricted some participation, preventing Mockenhaupt from realizing his full vision.
“The timing of a lot of other State Games didn’t quite line up,” Mockenhaupt said. “For instance, the Georgia State Games are the same weekend [so] they were not able to supply their winners. In fact, we had another team from another state going to their tournament [in Georgia].
“Next year, knowing about it a year in advance, [teams] can plan for that, plan to do that one more tournament,” Mockenhaupt added. “But in the meantime, we’ve found some very good teams.”
Very good, indeed. Twelve boys and girls teams, some of which won their respective State Games and others who took home recognized 7s tournament titles, competed in rugby’s SGA debut. Pennsylvania teams Exeter and Doylestown took home the boys' and girls' titles respectively, with both sides edging West End for the trophy. The championship teams also supplied the MVPs, with Exeter's Manny Soto and Doylestown's Sami Ernst taking home extra hardware.
In the larger scheme, the Ned Haig 7s was part of an event that included 9,000 athletes and awarded more than a thousand medals.
“We successfully put one more event on the ground that offers the opportunity for the sport to be showcased in an environment where there are other folks around that are maybe not as familiar with it,” Mockenhaupt said. “So it’s a showcasing opportunity.”
The hope is that nationwide exposure will encourage more states to include rugby in their State Games. At present, only 11 of the 31 State Games contest rugby competitions, and only seven of those host a youth 7s division. Mockenhaupt is confident that this year’s experience will convince the Keystone Games to include rugby going forward, because, “we have people on the ground there to make sure it gets done.”
Ideally, youth organizations around the country will get their act together by 2015, when the ninth SGA event unfurls in Omaha, Neb. Hosts of the Cornhusker State Games, Nebraska already includes rugby in its annual event, so adding the sport in 2015 is a real prospect.
In the meantime, Mockenhaupt and company will continue to provide a 7s showcase for regional high school teams, and if all goes well, the spirit of Ned Haig will continue to push 7s into higher profiles around the country.