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U.S. Is Trying to Join the Scrum of the Earth

Unlike in many other sports, world-class status in rugby is a goal, not a given, for American athletes.

February 15, 2004|Mike Penner | Times Staff Writer

Overhead, the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" came booming out over the Home Depot Center's sound system. In the stands below, a 16-nation party was underway.

Samoa supporters were singing. Fiji fans were flag-waving. And in various pockets of relative repression throughout the stadium, Americans were anxiously waiting, and nervously hoping, to see if the home team might actually score before sundown.

The tournament, a morning-to-night international rugby fest, was called the Team Roc USA Sevens, but on the scoreboard, after two head-spinning matches against England and Samoa, it was still USA Zeroes.

England 40, USA 0.

Samoa 17, USA 0.

The Americans were hosts of the two-day event, a new stop on the International Rugby Board World Seven Series tour, but for much of Saturday, they seemed like befuddled tourists trying to make a connection at Heathrow Airport, with Englishmen and other strange travelers brusquely zipping past them.

Finally, in the second minute of their third match of the day, about 10 minutes after 5 p.m. and more than seven hours after the day's opening kickoff, the U.S. broke through, against Trinidad and Tobago. Mose Timoteo crossed the goal line and touched the ball down. Try, USA.

The locals in the crowd of 7,308 at last had something to cheer about.

Ice broken, the Americans defeated Trinidad and Tobago, 31-12, to avoid last place in their four-team group. They move into consolation-round play today.

"We know that we have a good distance to go to be competitive in the game," said Doug Arnot, chief executive of USA Rugby.

"... We've got a ways to go in terms of attracting the elite athlete to our game. And, quite frankly, that's one of the important goals for this event."

Cobbled together in a scant four months after Brisbane relinquished its turn on the World Sevens annual eight-city tour, this weekend's USA Sevens is all about suffering today for a better tomorrow. Arnot and USA Rugby jumped at the chance to fill Brisbane's vacancy, even if the tournament was locked into the third weekend of February, which might be a nice bit of summer breeze on the Australian calendar, but two days of Southern California gridlock here.

It was tough to say who had the more daunting challenge:

The young Americans on the field, thrown against 2003 Rugby World Cup champion England in their opener?

Or event organizers, bumping heads with considerable local attractions and distractions -- Saturday's Valentine's Day rituals, which ordinarily don't include rucks and mauls, and today's NBA All-Star game at Staples Center?

Arnot decided to take the plunge, and his lumps, now because, as he sees it, you can't run with the big boys of global rugby until the little boys in the stands see what rugby is all about.

The streamlined seven-a-side game, faster and more wide-open than the customary 15-man version, "is an easier way to introduce people to the game," Arnot said. "... We want to attract the younger crowd to come out and see the game."

The IRB has made a three-year commitment to Los Angeles, hoping to tap into a market IRB Chief Executive Mike Miller believes has "great potential."

"You never know unless you try something," Miller said. "Business for us is good now. Our first three stops in this series have been sellouts. Now, you can go into traditional rugby markets and continue to sell out. Or you can say, 'Let's try to make the pie or the cake bigger.' "

Looking out over the stadium from the press box, Miller wasn't bothered by the almost 20,000 empty seats staring back.

"Things always take time to build," he said. "This is a better turnout than I thought we'd have."

Sevens rugby is the sport's entry level, for both fans and players. Played on the same size field as 15-man rugby, there is more room to roam and more emphasis on quick feet than thick necks. Imagine three-on-three basketball played full-court. With a 15-second shot clock. Every possession is a potential breakaway, with most resembling the final play of the 1982 Stanford-Cal football game.

"It's just a bunch of guys sidestepping each other," said former U.S. national team player Dan Lyle, now USA Rugby's manager of operations. "Just like you and I played in the backyard growing up, whether it's one-on-one basketball or four-on-four football. You're just trying to beat the guy in front of you and maybe throw a pass or lateral.

"It's a bunch of option quarterbacks just out there throwing the ball around. It's exciting. And if you don't like the teams that are playing, don't worry. In 15 minutes, there's another game."

The frenetic pace and the short games -- seven-minute halves with a two-minute halftime break -- form a breeding ground for upsets. Saturday, England followed its 40-0 rout of the United States with a 50-0 trouncing of Trinidad and Tobago, and finished second in Pool A, losing its last game of the day to Samoa, 19-17.

Other group winners were New Zealand in Pool B, South Africa in Pool C and Argentina in Pool D. They advanced to today's championship quarterfinals along with group runners-up England, Canada, France and Fiji.

The United States will open consolation play today at 10 a.m. against a surprising opponent, Australia. The Wallabies reached the final of the 2003 World Cup and they are traditionally one of the strongest sides in world rugby, but Saturday they finished last, and winless, in Pool B, placing behind New Zealand, Canada and Tonga.

That's sevens rugby.

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