With the USA leg of the World Sevens Series in Los Angeles for the first time since 2006, we headed to the City of Angels. This feature first appeared in Rugby World in April.
Behind The Scenes at the LA Sevens
AWAY FROM the smoke machines and bacon-wrapped hotdogs inside Dignity Health Sports Park, there is a whole other world of invitational
LA Sevens taking place on the fields skirting the soccer stadium.
As the US leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series fizzes away, outside boys’ teams, women’s sides and touring outfits vie for supremacy and a chance to play a final on that big pitch.
Amongst that hustling variety is a USA Falcons team made up of athletes hoping to push their way into Eagles contention for the Olympic Games. And in their ranks is one Marcus Tupuola.
The last time a sevens leg took place in Los Angeles County, in 2006, it was here in Carson, where Tupuola is from.
“I remember coming here when I was young and I would never have envisioned being here again playing rugby, so this is amazing,” the grinning back, 24, tells Rugby World. “I’m glad for the city because the kids here can see what rugby is now. It was missing in the past but now it’s growing – my old high school has a girls’ team now and a lot of them can get college scholarships, full rides. When I was a senior I played rugby but it wasn’t as relevant then.”
Which will be music to the ears of World Rugby and their big sponsors, with locals believing that a major event here can inspire another generation.
We are continually told rugby numbers are growing rapidly in the US and young girls populate an area of the pie chart that officials say is swelling. But according to Tupuola, there is another reason why having this event to show the children of this zipcode a different path is important.
“Out here sports can lead us away from the streets,” he explains candidly. “Around here it can be a little hectic, so it’s good (for youngsters) to have another outlet. That’s why I got into rugby.
“What I’ve seen people go through, I don’t want that to be me. I’ve got best friends in jail, friends that even died in high school. Flip of the coin it could have been me, so I’m blessed to be able to sit here and talk to you now.”
NBC are showing all the games in LA – with a unique system of airing big ones live and taping others to show during natural breaks in the day – while HSBC have a cameraman embedded with the USA team, for a documentary later in the year. All of which can thrill a nation now, but the dream for Tupuola is that others from Carson will be inspired to sprint headlong into an ever-evolving local rugby landscape.
However, there are some here who can explain how the game in and around LA has developed just to get to this point.
On day one of the tournament, on 29 February (sadly there are no pitchside proposals), there is something that feels unique to USA legs of the series. In one corner is a stronghold of Kenyan fans, who are rowdier, more colourful and just as popular as the fans of Fiji. They draw outsiders to them like a pot of honey, and it’s at the top steps of their section that we bump into Joseph Somerville, from Belmont Shore RFC based in Long Beach. Beside him is Ken Te’o, dad of USA sevens and 15s cap Mike, who is playing on the outer fields with Tupuola.
According to ‘Big Joe’, Southern Californian rugby in the Nineties was all about a duel between OMBAC out of San Diego, who had a large number
of front-line Eagles in their team, and Belmont Shore, who had many of the USA’s back-ups knitted in with other multicultural influences – with Kiwis, South Africans and a hefty number of Polynesians migrating to the area.
“Basically, the viewpoint of all of America back in 1997 was that you had to be in Southern California if you wanted to be an Eagle,” Somerville says.
And while today we continually hear those with a passing interest musing whether rugby in the States could benefit from athletes from other sports switching to rugby, in Long Beach they are familiar with the remoulding process.
Joe jumps back in: “We also get a lot of guys who aren’t ‘fresh off the boat’ feeding our team. We got guys who grew up playing American Football but they’re (second generation) Samoans. Their uncles made them learn rugby too.
“We probably had the hardest suburban white guys in the world because they had to put up; they had to go get their butts beat by Samoans and Tongans and Fijians while growing up!
“Ken’s kid is exactly what I’m talking about because he went to Long Beach Poly to play Football. Then at 15 or 16 he came over to us and now he’s an Eagle.”
Somerville makes clear that he loved the ‘party’ lifestyle of rugby in the Eighties and Nineties, but he can see a real ramping up of standards in the area. It’s all about outlets. Both men proudly proclaim that many of Belmont Shore’s best players gravitated towards Major League Rugby’s San Diego outfit, the Legion. Now, if the proposed LA Loyals franchise takes root, they imagine many will return to Greater Los Angeles.
With rugby in a competitive sports market here though, explains Somerville, they will need “a running, razzmatazz, exciting team or they are just wasting their time” because “LA wants a show – that’s just the way it is!”
Certainly you can feel the concerted effort to create the eye-popping here.
While execs may wish cameras saw many more bums on seats when the US, Kenya or Fiji aren’t playing, organisers are delighted with the turnout – an attendance figure of 17,436 for day one is reported, while the official site claims nearly 30,000 were here over the whole weekend – and there is heavy foot traffic on the concourse ringing the main stands. Cameras click away as players leave the tunnel. There’s even a star cameo from a familiar TV face.
Enter David Hasselhoff, who powers into action on day two with a Baywatch-style float in one hand, beaming at us through make-up.
“Sevens is the best thing about rugby,” happy Hasselhoff tells Rugby World. “Because you get a chance to relax, you see the players and you actually get a chance to watch them run. And when you watch, like, Wales playing England (in the Six Nations) it’s incredible but it’s a much slower game. This is so fast. And the best part about it is it’s seven minutes. You can see 16 teams in a weekend. How cool is that?
“I love rugby. It’s absolutely a fun game. But LA needs better promotion because it’s huge worldwide.”
Hasselhoff makes that call in the eye of a whirlwind of activity with HSBC ambassadors Brian O’Driscoll and USA women’s player Alev Kelter, tossing the ball around and scrumming down. But he is not the only one who can see potential to draw more punters to this competition, if promotion ramps up.
At the mouth of the tunnel leading out to the pitch we bump into Jason Raven, who played for the Eagles when the sevens was first here in the early Noughties. He comments that in other established rugby markets, events like this are flagged well ahead of time with “signage and commercials” weeks in advance. But he has noticed a lack of that in LA in the lead-up to this event.
Yet it’s worth noting that this is the first run back here with the modern Series and Raven is still pumped up, extolling: “It’s huge having the sevens here in LA again. One, because USA are doing so much better on the circuit than we were back then. And two, because the rugby community’s been built up tremendously.
“We have one of the fastest-growing sports in the US, we have youth programmes all over the country and we are now starting to see players like Marcus (Tupuolu) who have came out of a youth programme like that.
“Having an event here in the US and in Canada is huge too – so it’s more like the Australian and New Zealand combo, but with two North American countries. It’s just a great atmosphere.
“It works because of the weather – I’ve played in Scotland where it’s ‘Great, a wet ball!’ – and it being so dry and nice all the time, it helps a West Coast, ‘run and gun’ type of style. And to be honest, the more the fans get into it, the better the USA play, and vice versa.”
On the field the Eagles get fans on their feet, but the real marvel of the weekend is a final in which Fiji run away with it in the first half against the Blitzboks, only for the South Africans to come roaring back in the second as a Branco du Preez try in the corner is followed by an impossibly ballsy conversion from the touchline by the same man. He takes it to 24-24 at the final hooter. In sudden death, a muscular turnover by Chris Dry nabs ball for Sakoyisa Makata to score the winner.
The weekend brings plenty of other highlights. Fiji’s Sevuloni Mocenacagi throws possibly the pass of the season with an outrageous back-of-the-hand bullet against Australia. The Kenyans are in the mood to dance back to the changing rooms, Kevon Williams wins the Jon Prusmack Award for the Eagles’ unsung hero and there’s even the odd tail-gate grill spotted in the car park.
Former Bath and USA No 8 Dan Lyle played a big part in putting this event on. Sleep, it’s safe to say, was affected in the nights before. He reveals of the job: “You have to challenge yourself to say, ‘Okay, what are the things that you can do in year one and what are the things that you can do in year two?’
“Across the board, we look at what you have in the festival and in the crowd, whether people of all different nationalities and of all different ages
can be part of that, what makes it accessible, what makes it fun and what makes it an experience.
“But oftentimes you are trying to do too many things for too many different people. So what we have to learn in year one is what really works.”
We know they have sun and palm trees, Hollywood ideals and fans who love a slick of glitz. We know there can be a bang on the field. That’s light, cameras… Let’s see plenty of action in year two.
This feature first appeared in Rugby World magazine in April.
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