One of the advantages of working at a motorcycle shipping company is that there are a lot of like-minded people around with similar interests and hobbies. Quite a few of us ride bikes and spend a fair amount of time on the weekends exploring new locations and routes to nearby places. Being in southern California, there is a wide geographic variety close by. One weekend we can do a ride up the coast. hugging the Pacific Ocean and the very next weekend go on a trip into the desert. It’s usually a last minute thing that we can arrange really easily without too much preparation.
But this weekend we did something completely different. Well not completely! It still involved a bike trip to Vegas, but our destination was not the bright lights and casinos of the infamous strip. It was the playing fields of the Sam Boyd stadium to watch the Rugby Sevens tournament. Now this was something completely new for my buddies. Most of them had never even heard of rugby, never mind see a match. This was a unique opportunity for me to introduce my friends to a sport and culture that I grew up with as a kid in South Africa.
Rugby Sevens is a watered down version of the original Rugby Union game that consist of 15 players per team. It is a hard-hitting; fast sport that does not stop for 40 minutes per half. The 2013-2014 HSBC Sevens World Series has been developed as a worldwide travelling tournament and includes stops in Dubai, South Africa, New Zealand, Las Vegas, Hong Kong, Australia, England and Scotland. The teams have reduced their number of players from 15 to 7 and shortened the game from 40 minutes per half to 7. Sixteen nations compete in this three-day tournament. Fans from all over the world convene in one place to support their respective countries’. What a great way to introduce my friends and coworkers to this unique tradition.
I managed to rally six of us for the trip. We left on Thursday from San Diego. Now to be honest, the route to Vegas is not one of the most exciting and stimulating. There really are not many different roads you can take or side trips along the way. But this trip, strangely enough was not about the journey, but the destination. You know what they say; “A bad day on the road is better than a good day at work”. So it was sticking to the main highways and regular routes for us. But uneventful it was not! The first surprise was at our pit stop in Barstow. No road trip to Vegas is complete without a stop at the legendary Barstow McDonalds train station. Mickey D’s have taken a few rail carriages and converted them into a regular burger place and standard American kitsch tourist trap. But this was not the attraction today.
It seems we were not the only ones with the idea of heading out to the tournament. The tailgate party started early and 150 miles away from the location. The parking lot was filled with fans heading out from California. And I’m not talking your regular run of the mill fans, I’m talking rugby supporters from Fiji, Samoa, New Zealand, South Africa among many other countries. Most of them were wearing the colors of their nations jersey. The parking lot was already a festive place with great friendly banter between the folks ready for a good spirited weekend of sport, fun, food and revelry. My friends were wide-eyed and smiling. They know they were in for a good time. There were another group of bikers from Los Angeles who had the same intentions and so we continued our ride up to sin city now 15 strong, enough for a full rugby team.
I had us booked into the Monte Carlo hotel, which was an official tournament hotel, so I knew the festivities would be on par. I really wasn’t expecting what greeted us. Rugby really does not have a huge following in the States. Well that’s what I thought. The hotel was filled with people from all over the world, all with the same intention. To support their team, share in some fun and end the weekend as the treasured victors of the tournament. This was a family event, so the age range was from school kids to grandparents. It was now early evening, so we checked into our rooms and really took it easy for the evening, since it was a long ride and we were not up for a big night yet.
This event was really well organized. They had shuttle buses running every thirty minutes between the hotel and the stadium on the campus of the University of Las Vegas. After our standard buffet breakfast we boarded the bus at about noon to begin the days festivities. If the hotel was an eye opener, the stadium was a jaw dropper. The parking lot was like an international food bazaar. Every one of the 16 nations food was represented at one or more booths. Fans were covered from head to toe in their national colors. I was amazed at how creative some of these fans can be, or should I say crazy? Some were covered in complete body paint. It must have taken hours to prepare. A lot of the Pacific Islander nation’s had their traditional tattoos all over their bodies. And when I say all over their body, I mean their faces too. Some of these guys look frightening in their traditional garb. There was a stage with performers from all over the world as well as local artists. I felt I was at the Coachella of rugby. But what impressed me the most about this event, was that even though this was a competition for the ultimate prize of being the best team at the event, the rivalry and banter was always in good spirit and fun. I never felt that things would get out of hand and supporters would take it to an unpleasant level.
Once we had fed our faces with delectable delights from all over the world we headed to our seats. So far my friends had been having an amazing time. The trip had exceeded their expectations already, but entering into the playing field was another new experience. Each country had booked their own blocks in the stadium, so upon entering the seating it looked like a collage of colors alive. Each country’s supporters were chanting their own support songs, waving their flags and showing unwavering support, even when their own team wasn’t playing. The cacophony from the crowd was inspiring and uplifting. I can imagine a player on the field being motivated by such support. The seven a side rugby match is a fast paced, non-stop battle between fit warriors on a mission. The rules are pretty simple. The offensive team has to get the ball from one end of the field to the other by passing it backwards. The defensive team has to stop them. It’s a high pressure, physically challenging sport, that does not stop from the minute it starts to the second it ends. Oftentimes a far more talented side overruns a team and other times it is a very close match without much between the two sides. There always seems to be an underdog that topples the giants and makes it into the final rounds. After three days, my friends had become avid fans, learning the rules, players and choosing favorites. Unfortunately, the teams they had chosen did not win the tournament. That prestigious crown went to me and my favored South African team called the Springboks.
We left the event feeling spent, satisfied, excited and committing to return next year to do it all over again. Hopefully with a bigger group.