The word ‘Olympics’ is never far away when talking about Rugby Sevens in the USA


Rugby Nation Comment: Good for Madison Hughes. Keep the dram alive. Olympics 2016, here we come.


There’s no escaping the Olympic Games when you talk rugby sevens in the United States of America, while there’s another word starting with ‘o’ that often comes up as well.
“Rio 2016 is a real opportunity for the young players across the USA,” said Madison Hughes, the winning captain at the Serevi Rugbytown Sevens in Glendale, Colorado last weekend.
All four entities of USA Rugby’s Olympic Development Program, announced last Christmas, were in Glendale as were the national teams of the Cayman Islands, Mexico and Bermuda who each have Olympic aspirations. The “Maestro”, 45-year old Waisale Serevi, even made an appearance or two for the latter.
These ODPs – fInalists and host club Glendale Raptors, third-placed Tiger Rugby, Plate winners Serevi Selects and the Northeast Regional Academy – all demonstrated plenty of young talent at Infinity Park.
Fans in the USA talk about the Olympics as being the event that matters the most and a stage will take rugby sevens – which Glendale Mayor Mike Dunafon calls the greatest sport in the world – to a whole new level.
Locals I spoke to in bars, on buses and even at the baseball know only a little about rugby at the moment but their eyes light up when the Olympics is discussed.
And it’s tournaments like the one instigated by the Mayor and his team last year that will be crucial for preparing America for the Olympics.
“This is an incredible event and we’re grateful to everyone who has put it on,” said Hughes. “There are’t many tournament in the US calendar where you get such a great bunch of teams and so many good players and to play in front of (USA Sevens coach) Matt Hawkins and people like Waisale Serevi and Ben Gollings.
“It’s an opportunity for us to show our ability, prove that we’re the guys who want to go on to the next level and show that we want to compete. It’s a great tournament and we want to come back and defend the title.”
Hughes was a stand-out for the All-American Collegiate team as they went unbeaten to claim the title, and with it $US10,000 and an invitation to Fiji.
But the Dartmouth playmaker, who scored a try in the final against Glendale and set up the winning score in the semi final against Tiger, paid tribute to the entire squad.
“It was a total team effort and everyone really played their role to perfection,” he said. “We came out on top because all 12 guys in the squad, and we’ve got some outstanding rugby players, put in all their effort.
“It’s a tough task bringing together a team in a week and the result is a credit to our coaching staff – Tony Pacheco and Aaron Manheimer – and the whole of the squad who only got together on Monday night.”
Former USA Sevens Eagle Garrett Bender, South African-born Zinzan Elan-Puttick and xx Steve Tomasin were others who featured prominently for the All Americans.
Glendale were pleased to make the final, although both Tiger and Northeast – who made the Plate semi final – felt they could have gone further, with the absence of several top players at the World Club Sevens clearly having an effect.
It’s a clash of dates that should be avoided in future years with both tournaments having so much to offer.
The facilities at Infinity Park, the hospitality of the City of Glendale and the quality of teams across the field – not to mention the special place the Armed Forces played in the tournament – mean it can quickly become the premier tournament in the USA below the IRB Las Vegas Sevens.
Players, VIPs, sponsors, media and spectators – many experiencing the sport for the first time – all spoke in glowing terms about the investment made by the city in Infinity Park while the weather was idyllic for both the rugby and the inaugural ESPN Beerfest featuing many of the state’s micro-breweries.
The state-of-the-art venue was complemented by innovations such as a drone camera flying above the action enhancing the webcast whcih was shared by Denver’s ABC television.
Organisers are working on ways to improve the tournament, such as adding a women’s division and developing partnerships with the Bayleys Fiji Coral Coast Sevens (declaration of interest: I am Tournament Director there) and others.
Nonetheless, Rugbytown USA is already proving crucial to the Olympic hopes and dreams.
“We offer an opportunity for the youth to succeed and we are seeing the future of rugby in the United States,” said Mayor Dunafon after the final.
That future includes UK-born Hughes, who qualifies for both countries through his parents (an English father and American mother).
“This is my second year of college in the USA and my goal is to make the USA Eagles Sevens,” he said. “I’m going to have to work very hard because there’s some great players ahead of me but I’m going to do all I can to reach that goal. Playing with a quality team really helps.”
The ex-Wellington College student is now setting his sights on the November tournament.
“Fiji is as good as it gets in rugby sevens and they are what you look at on YouTube when you’re searching sevens highlights. Playing there would be fantastic as I’ve never been and we’re all really excited about the opportunity.”
There’s that ‘o’ word again, we’ll be hearing more of that from Hughes in the years ahead.
All Americans 31 Glendale Raptors 12
Third place playoff
Tiger Rugby French Armed Forces
Semi finals
Glendale Raptors 17 French Armed Forces 14
All Americans 19 Tiger Rugby 14
Quarter finals
Glendale Raptors 21 Northeast 12
French Armed Forces 24 US Army 10
Tiger Rugby 26 Serevi Selects 24
All Americans 43 USA Air Force 0
Serevi Selects 34 US Army 0
El Azul 26 USA Falcons 19
Cayman Islands 38 US Navy 7