Americans have football; why would they need a similar contest that combines fleet feet and brute force? But those gathered at Avaya said rugby is the latest offshore sport to make a splash in the United States, and they believe its popularity is growing.
“It’s really picking up momentum,” said Ricardo Mejia, a coordinator of rugby events. “Millennials are getting into it. And once they’re exposed, they think this is a really cool sport.”
He said Sunday that unlike football, there’s little equipment — the ball, or “pill” as it is sometimes called because of its footballish shape, cleats, and a mouth guard. There are no pads or helmets but Mejia said one of the first things you learn as a budding player is how to tackle someone correctly and safely.
That doesn’t mean people don’t get hurt. But Chris Fisher, president of the Silicon Valley youth league, said it’s mostly minor contact; concussions are more of a football thing.
“They’re not using their head as a device in rugby, they’re not going in head-first to knock the other guy,” he said. “Most injuries are bruises, and getting very winded.”
Fisher said that eight years ago there were four or five rugby clubs in the South Bay, first in Palo Alto, then Santa Clara and Los Gatos and “now there’s probably 30 to 40.”
“We’ve got hundreds of kids playing rugby,” Fisher said. “And now we’re really pushing hard to get girls involved. It’s a great sport and our teams are very diverse and very inclusive.”
The Silicon Valley Sevens festival showcased the faster form of rugby. It’s called “sevens” because there are that many players on each team — as opposed to 15 in traditional rugby — and the game goes by in less than 15 minutes of play. Each half is seven minutes long.
Chris Owen, of Dallas, who grew up playing traditional rugby, said it’s more exhausting than what he’s accustomed to. His kind of rugby involves more strategy, more scrums, more kicking the ball, more raw power. The seven athletes are more like football running backs, and in competitions, there are repeated bouts over the course of a day.
“These guys will sprint for three or four miles in a day,” Owen said. “That’s a little much for me.”
Mejia said that rugby sevens’ inclusion into the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro last year raised its profile, and the Sunday crowd included fans from across the globe — rugby is insanely popular in the British-influenced islands of Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji.
Fiji’s base is particularly strong — the little country won its first-ever Olympic medal in Rio for rugby sevens in the sport’s inaugural year at the international competition.
“It’s the sport of the country,” said Pauline Sokia, a Fijian who now lives in Monterey. “Whenever Fiji plays everyone stops what they’re doing to watch the game. Everybody at home is watching this right now.”
But it wasn’t Fiji’s day on Sunday. The U.S. team trounced the little powerhouse, 24 to 5. But that’s OK, said Maoni Roberts of the Fiji Blue Wiggers, a 30-strong contingent of women who follow the national teams and show up wearing big bright-blue clown wigs.
“They’re a new team, most of the guys haven’t played with each other very long at all,” Roberts said. “But it’s a good thing, they need to get practice somewhere.”
Roberts said the goal is to win games in future matches; while this event was more of an exhibition, it’s a warm-up for the World Cup Sevens and eventually the Olympics. She was in Rio to watch the team play.
“To get the first Fiji medal of any color, in gold, for sevens,” she said, “that was so great. Just amazing.”