You might not know it yet, but rugby sevens is your new favorite sport.
Played on the same size field as rugby union, sevens hits fast-forward on the conventional game with seven players per side (instead of 15), 14-minute matches (instead of 80) and easy-to-follow rules (instead of, well, do you understand regular rugby?).
“It ticks all the boxes: It’s physical, there’s collisions, it’s at high speed, it’s at high skill level with a fast-moving ball,” says Mike Friday, head coach of the U.S. men’s team.
With games split into seven-minute halves, there simply isn’t time to take things slow. It’s full-tilt from the first whistle, brilliant sprints and brutal tackles making for numerous lead changes and a game that’s deliciously unpredictable. Friday calls it a “cocktail of excitement,” one that’s only augmented by the beer flowing in the stands, the national chants rising from fans and the possibility of catching perennial favorites the New Zealand All Blacks performing an indigenous haka war dance. Shirtless. In the rain.
See what we mean about your new favorite sport?
Then you’ll be happy to know that rugby sevens is Las Vegas-bound. USA Sevens, March 4-6 at Sam Boyd Stadium, is the American leg of the HSBC Rugby Sevens World Series, an annual tournament that pits 16 national teams against each other in 10 cities across the globe. Each stop awards its own cup, and points are assigned in descending finishing order, with the eventual World Series victor determined by total points earned.
But never mind all that. USA Sevens isn’t just an international rugby tournament; it’s an athletic carnival that goes way beyond the action on the pitch. A food festival at the stadium showcases dishes from the competing nations, and pockets of supporters dressed in Fijian blue or Kenyan red and green transform Sam Boyd into a colorful mosaic. Other fans follow the rugby tradition of donning full costumes, Hello Kitty and Jesus knocking back beers while the boys go at it on the field. Two parts riveting spectator sport, one part global fiesta, the competition is worth checking out even if you have no idea what a scrum is.
USA Sevens first arrived in Las Vegas in 2010, and over the past six seasons both the tournament and the team have grown up. Attendance has more than doubled, turning the event into a week-long rugby rager that’s expected to draw roughly 80,000 fans in 2016. Along with three days of match play, there are autograph signings, afterparties, a 250-team amateur tourney and an Olympics-style parade of nations set to walk the Fremont Street Experience on March 3.
Team USA has also developed in recent years. Once perpetually struggling also-rans, the Men’s Eagles Sevens are now budding contenders who did the unthinkable last year and won the cup in London, the first time the U.S. had ever taken the top spot in a World Series tournament.
This season, the Eagles will arrive in Vegas firmly in the middle of the pack in seventh place, behind Fiji, South Africa and New Zealand, first, second and third, respectively.
“We’ve come a long way,” Coach Friday says. “This is probably the most successful USA Sevens squad the country’s ever had. They are feared and respected on the circuit, which is a huge compliment to us, but one we can’t take for granted. We have to go out there every time we play and earn that respect.”
The Las Vegas leg of the tournament will give the team an opportunity to do just that. Friday says competing on home soil should give the guys an extra spark. “I think we haven’t played our best rugby yet,” he says. “I think they can become a far better squad than they are at the moment.”
Here’s hoping the Eagles realize that potential soon. Rugby will return to the Olympics this summer in Rio for the first time in 92 years, and it’s seven-a-side play that’s earned the international spotlight. The defending Olympic gold medalists? Team USA.
USA Sevens Rugby March 4-6; Friday, 4-9:45 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10:20 a.m.-4:05 p.m.; $15-$215. Sam Boyd Stadium, 702-895-3761.