Rugby Sevens: The Perfect Antidote For The Time-Starved Sports Fan

A scrum during the Fiji vs. South Africa Cup Final at the USA Rugby Sevens tournament in Las VegasWhen I began this walkabout, it was not without careful consideration of the risks. Eye strain. Chapped hands from applauding. Being trapped on a Delta Airlines middle seat between two 300-pounders.

But I never contemplated the chances of being victimized by crime. Yet there I was, being robbed. In broad daylight, no less.

She didn’t fit the profile – they never do. She couldn’t have been more than 25 years old. Pleasant-looking. A little on the slight side. I don’t know how tall she was, because she was sitting down at the time. I never saw it coming.

“Excuse me, sir – did you not hear me the first time? That will be fifty dollars.”

I managed to pull myself together. “There must be some mistake. I just wanted to buy one single General Admission ticket to the rugby tournament.”

That’s when she brought out the big guns – the eye roll and exasperated sigh. “Sir, there are people waiting in line behind you.” And just like that, I became another grisly statistic.

Samoa vs. Argentina in the USA Sevens rugby tournament in Las VegasI had come to Las Vegas full of anticipation. I’d not seen rugby played before, at any level, and now I was going to witness the final day of competition in the USA Sevens Rugby Championship, the lone North American stop in the IRB Sevens World Series. This kind of experience is the hallmark of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour. Apparently the price of hallmarks is at a premium in Las Vegas.

I hadn’t seen a price-to-value equation that out of whack since…well, since the last time that I dealt with a UNLV athletic facility. It probably went down this way: The folks that run Thomas & Mack Arena were boasting at a departmental get-together last Fall about having set a new land record for price-gouging during the Pro Bull Riders World Finals. So of course their counterparts at Sam Boyd Stadium decided to one-up them. Thus was born the fifty dollar charge for an unreserved spot on an aluminum bench in the upper deck. For a decidedly second-tier sport.

Any inkling that I had about taking a liking to rugby took a shot in the solar plexus before I had even laid eyes on my first scrum.

Rugby has been around for a long, long time. Word has it that it pre-dates Brett Favre’s first retirement. But the popularity of the full 15-a-side game has always been limited to certain parts of the world. Not so with rugby sevens, a shorter variant of the game, in which teams are made up of seven players. Sevens has grown steadily in popularity around the globe, to the extent that it will make its debut as an Olympic sport in the 2016 Summer Games.

Once I had settled in and absorbed the action in the first couple of matches, I could see how this abbreviated version of the game could catch on quickly. While the specific rules and regs are different, rugby sevens has so much in common with American football it’s almost impossible not to pick up the essence of the game immediately.

Kenya attempts a conversion kick in its USA Sevens rugby match against AustraliaIn both games, the goal is…well, a goal. Teams endeavor to carry the ball over a line and into a scoring zone, for which they are awarded a number of points – six in football and five in rugby sevens. Having done that, the team has the opportunity to tack on a conversion. In rugby sevens that can only be done via a drop-kick, and if done correctly, it will give you another two points. Net/net:  In both games, if you score and then kick a funny-shaped ball through a set of uprights successfully, your team gets seven points.

The fundamental difference between the two games is the forward pass – or more specifically, the lack of such in rugby. If you want to move the ball down the field you can only do it by carrying it or kicking it. Sure, you can pass the ball all you want, but only backward, a la the lateral in football.

With this limitation, it’s easy to see how a field full of 30 players can get bogged down pretty quickly into a game of mostly pushing and grunting. With just 14 players however, things open up dramatically, yielding lots more open-field action and subsequently, more scoring. Play unfolds like this…

And these games are incredibly quick. While a rugby “union” match lasts about an hour and a half, a normal sevens match consists of two seven minute halves. Halftime lasts one minute. Yes, I said one minute.

When I learned that halves are just seven minutes long, my first reaction was that timekeeping would be like basketball, i.e. that the clock would run only when actual play was taking place. In other words, I expected “stopped time” matches, which would produce an elapsed time that was more than twice the fourteen official minutes.

Nope.

If anything, the time dedicated to pure action in a sevens match was less than the advertised time. The clock stops for almost nothing, yet there’s a good bit of officiating-inspired milling around that takes place as time ticks away. The result is that a match consists of maybe a half-dozen concerted offensive “tries”, with the rest of the time spent rolling around the ground. And thus it struck me that I was watching exhibitions, or previews of rugby as opposed to the real thing.

Don’t get me wrong – they were really cool previews. But each one was over before I had the opportunity to fully form an impression or develop a rooting interest. I had read that sevens tournaments are known for having more of a relaxed “festival” atmosphere than fifteen-a-side games, and in short time I knew exactly what was meant by that.

Play featuring a steady stream of international teams rolled on inexorably before me, as the tournament wound down toward the ultimate crowning of a champion. Except that it was hard to tell exactly how they were going to do that. Like all of the IRB Sevens World Series events, this one included a competition for a Cup, a Plate, a Bowl, and a Shield. This is good I guess, in that it spreads winning karma around and avoids those nasty self-image problems that can crop up among elite international athletes.

To facilitate this though, a series of consolation-type brackets are built into the schedule, creating a matrix that even Keanu Reeves might not be able to fathom. From a Sports Fan standpoint, you never really knew whether the loser of any given match had been (finally) eliminated…or whether they could still grab some hardware through the side door.

I decided to stop trying to figure it out and just let the afternoon wash over me. And when somebody was crowned champion, I would stand and applaud their achievement lustily.

To be concluded in next post…

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