By Seb Lauzier
Same state, different city. Same sport, different ball game. Forget California's golfing super-grannies, even the USA Sevens has had cosmetic surgery this year.
Admittedly, it won't compete for column inches with David Beckham's latest haircut but rugby's new leaders in the States are confident that the USA Sevens is the perfect way for them to take the sport out to a wide-eyed public.
For the last three years the USA Sevens - the fourth event in the ever-growing IRB Sevens World Series - was held at the impressive Home Depot Center in Carson, Los Angeles. The facilities were state-of-the-art and the rugby was as good as promised but the buzz and crowd failed to show up. 15,000 on the final day's play was good but America knows it can do better.
So anyone in San Diego on the 10th and 11th February this year, and not either celebrating the Lunar New Year at the American Youth Festival or taking in the Montgomery Waller Community Park Carnival, should be at the Padre's very own PETCO Park for two days of non-stop international rugby action.
Former US Eagles captain Dan Lyle is heading up operations at this year's tournament and he's confident that Sevens is precisely the way to take rugby to the masses stateside.
"I started out in Sevens, Lyle told Total Rugby. "As a big guy it helped me a bit but it's one of those things that Americans can identify with quickly.
"There's a try every minute, it's all-action, it's skills and speed, raw athletes excelling and America has a lot of those guys. Plus with the American consumer attention span famously short it's something that they can get, and get quickly.
"I don't want to go into the whole spiel of 44 matches in two days, 16 nations etc but that’s exactly what it is,” Lyle continued. "It's never boring. It’s the right way to introduce rugby to America and we’re really excited about taking the best of what’s been successful at the other events around the world and making a Rugby Sevens carnival in San Diego, getting everyone involved, and then trying and use that to serve as a catalyst for growing our athlete pool.”
One way Sevens does rival soccer is that so many international sides are genuinely competitive. The Cup trophies may usually be picked up by the same four or five teams but this season’s titles have gone to three different sides - South Africa, New Zealand and Samoa - and there have been upsets galore: Zimbabwe have beaten mighty France, Tunisia beat rugby powerhouse Australia, Portugal beat the founders of the game, Scotland and Kenya shocked Argentina in Wellington. By the same token, even if the US Eagles would struggle to compete with the game’s elite at 15-a-side, in Sevens they can.
From the evidence of what went on at the NZI Sevens in Wellington last weekend, the home crowd have a more than decent Eagles side to cheer on to an elusive but surely inevitable first win of the season. The team is fit, sharp and knows Sevens. Only a cruel, last-ditch try from France denied them in their first game at the Westpac Stadium. Equally competitive games followed against other core teams in Portugal, Scotland and Australia, only Fiji really ramping up the scores against them - as they were doing against everyone else at the time.
And while Al Caravelli has been working hard to transform the fortunes of the home nation’s Sevens side on the pitch, away from it Lyle and his colleagues have also been doing their share of intense research, ‘observing’ the world famous and hugely successful Sevens events in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Dubai. Tough job, but the end game has to deliver and it looks like the USA Sevens is now giving itself every chance of success.
“We’ve moved from Los Angeles to San Diego and used a lot of international contacts to talk to the guys who make the Sevens happen elsewhere and just say ‘How do we make this thing work? Why did LA not work? What was wrong with LA?’ And the basic reason was that Carson, California and the Home Depot Center were great venues but it was nowhere, there was nothing there,” said Lyle.
Adjacent to the action on the pitch, a rival cauldron of fun and games will be on constant simmer outside the PETCO allowing fans to come and go as they please. Every minute of the action will be broadcast in glorious technicolor on the ‘Jumbotron’ screen, while the beer, gardens, food tents, rides, games, competitions and merchandise will soak up anyone not immediately engrossed in the action. In short it will be Sevens, American style.
“We all go to rugby because we want mateship, we want affinity, we want a great time, a party and San Diego is downtown, middle of the city, more than ninety bars and restaurants within a three block area. There’s a bridge into the stadium if you want to take it. We’re going to have a festival atmosphere outside, much like the village atmosphere in Hong Kong and Dubai.
“There’s going to be lots of crowd interaction, bands, we’re going to have bands playing, all kinds of really fun stuff. So it’s really about trying to take what Sevens is world wide, create a little micro-Olympic environment that the Americans know so well and really build that from year to year," said Lyle.
“San Diego want to be like an LA, a New York. They’re one of our top six cities but just not as well known, so we think we can help them and they can help us. It’s a much better fit.”