Report by Jamie Neikrie
The U.S Men’s Rugby Sevens team wants to watch the Super Bowl and I’m sitting in their seats. Even when you’re invited, staring down 13 hulking men can be intimidating. Thankfully, the Eagles couldn’t have nicer, packing in to the table around me without a moment’s thought. Surrounded by at least 100 die-hard American football fans at the Chicago Bar, we settled in to watch the game.
“We’re going to beat Argentina the way the Seahawks beat the Broncos,” remarked winger Nick Edwards. The Big Game may have been a big letdown, with Seattle blowing out Denver 43 – 8, but the team didn’t seem to mind. Most of the Eagles rooted for the Seahawks, cheering for every successful Seattle play like it was a game-winning catch. They might not have been so hospitable had I not been rooting for the Seahawks as well.
Many of the American-born players on the team are former football players, and they know a big hit when they see it. “These guys are crazy,” said Edwards. “To charge at a 250-pound behemoth with your head lowered is just looking for brain damage. When you have no pads, you’re going to be more aware.”
Not everyone was so invested in the game. “My mother in law lives in Seattle and she’s basically the Devil, and I hate Denver, so basically I’m just looking for as many injuries as possible in this game,” admitted one of the players, whose identity I’ll leave anonymous for the sake of his family dinners.
With the game out of reach early into the third quarter, the team started to trickle out of the bar. The dejected fans of other NFL teams were the first to leave, with little on the line. I followed them to Waitangi Park, where the U.S Embassy had organized a community event with the Eagles. Basking in the sun of a glorious summer day, the team served hotdogs, signed autographs, and played a pickup game with the young fans.
Image Gallery: U.S Rugby Sevens team event, Wellington
With little fanfare back in the States, the players were understandably proud of the attention and adoration they got from the largely Kiwi crowd. “The game is continuing to expand at the collegiate level in the U.S, bringing more and more players to the game,” Edwards explained. The attraction of a sport like rugby, the winger said, is the amount of opportunities offered in comparison to such hyper-competitive American sports like football. “If you’re strong, fast, and you can pass the ball, there’s a home for you in rugby.” Edwards hopes that the team can qualify for Olympics next year, an opportunity that will bring new exposure and support for the team in the U.S. To make it to the game’s biggest stage would mean likely having to beat North American opponents Canada, whom the Eagles play on February 7. “No matter which way it goes, it should be a good one,” said Head Coach Matthew Hawkins.
The Eagles may be underdogs going in the upcoming tournament, but don’t tell them that. “We have a great mix of talent this year. We have a bunch of young, fast guys and some veterans that bring experience to the table,” said Edwards. The Eagles have beaten every team participating in the Wellington tournament except New Zealand. “This will be the year,” said hooker Zachery Test, a grin on his face.