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Catch the Fever

Rugby Renaissance Takes Center Stage at Annual Denver Sevens Tourney

Rugby has elements of soccer, football and basketball, and is constantly moving, and play doesn’t stop unless a team has scored, the ball goes out of bounds or a penalty is assessed.

Rugby has elements of soccer, football and basketball, and is constantly moving, and play doesn’t stop unless a team has scored, the ball goes out of bounds or a penalty is assessed.

He catches the ball and breaks into the open field. Suddenly, a fleet-footed defender stops him in his tracks and seems certain to take him down. At the last second, the ball carrier, as he’s going to the ground, finds a teammate behind him, tosses the ball and watches him run the rest of the way for a score as he puts the ball down and celebrates.

Sounds familiar, right? But it’s not what you think.

Well, these guys (and gals) aren’t playing football. For starters, they don’t don helmets or wear shoulder pads and aren’t allowed to throw the ball downfield.

And while this long-revered sport called rugby can be traced back to early 19th-century England, it’s being embraced more than ever here in the United States. As a matter of fact, one of the longest-running rugby competitions in the country is held every summer over two days right up the road in metro Denver.

Come take in the non-stop action at the 51st annual Denver Sevens Rugby Tournament, July 28-29 at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. Before too long, you’ll learn the ins and outs about mauls, scrums, lineouts and drop goals, just to name a few.

“For casual fans who have never seen rugby, you can figure out what’s going on once you watch for only a few minutes,” says longtime director Howard Kent who, incidentally, grew up in Colorado Springs, once a student at Mark Twain Elementary and the now-repurposed Irving Middle School. “Rugby is an incredibly exciting sport. There’s no dead time.”

Only the New York Sevens (established in 1958) has a longer track record in sevens rugby than the Denver Sevens.

In its original form, rugby is made up of 15 players on each side – also known as a union – whose objective is to carry the ball over the opponent’s goal line and ground it for a score, also known as a try. 

Players can carry the ball forward, but the ball must be passed backward or laterally. Points accumulate through a try (five points), conversion (two), penalty kick and drop goals (three).

The ball is constantly moving in rugby, where play doesn’t stop unless a team has scored, the ball goes out of bounds or a penalty is assessed.

Along the way, the traditional rugby, with two, 40-minute halves, became streamlined into the Olympic format, with only seven players taking part on the same field, which measures 100 meters long by 70 meters wide. The games are much shorter, too, just seven minutes for each half with a two-minute halftime.

“When you have seven aside, that’s a high-skilled, fast-flying game,” says Angus Peacock, the executive director of Rugby Colorado, the state’s governing body for youth rugby. “It’s very attractive to Americans. It fits into TV schedules nicely, and it’s fast, furious and high scoring. Plus, people are used to watching one game once they’ve paid. That’s not what sevens is about. It’s a festival environment, and you can be there all day and watch as many games as you like. You get plenty of bang for your buck.”

Back in 1968, the Seven-A-Side Rugby competition commenced as the crowning event of the spring season and became a regular feature as it gradually moved between various venues around the Mile High city before finding its permanent home in 2007 at Dick’s Sporting Good Park.

At its peak in the 1980s, the tournament was fielding as many as 48 clubs but also worked its way back from near extinction from 1996-2000, when the event was held as part of a multi-week series due to the emergence of the 15-player format and lack of local interest.

In 2002, Kent, who previously helped run the tournament in 1994-95, returned to his post as director, as management re-established the Denver Sevens tournament. By 2004, the event elevated itself to status as a regional qualifier, which leads to the national club championship.

Rugby’s resurgence in Denver came at a critical time as the sport made its return to the Olympic arena, becoming a full-fledged member of the USOC in 2011 and ending a 92-year drought in 2016 by appearing in the Rio Summer Olympics.

Also, the sport went professional in the U.S. earlier this year with the launching of Major League Rugby, with the Glendale Raptors putting Colorado on the map as one of the seven inaugural franchises.

It’s now estimated that some 1 million people are playing rugby at one level or another in the United States, but it remains to be seen if that popularity will equate into prominence at the global level, much like soccer’s growth following a long-awaited World Cup berth in 1990 and creation of Major League Soccer in 1996.

And those emerging athletes who might fill rosters for future national and professional teams very well could be cutting their teeth at this year’s Denver Sevens.

“I think we’re definitely on a path to becoming a top-tier rugby nation,” Peacock says. “We’ve got to keep investing and keep people playing, from high school, amateur, club to semi-pro and pro. Those layers are essential. It’s an experience-based sport, so we’ve got to keep people playing at the highest level. That’s how we’re going to thrive and survive.”