Big turnout for Rugby Sevens tournament at PPL Park

Posted: June 06, 2011

IN AN NFL offseason fraught with court dates and mediated negotiations, it's no surprise that fans throughout the region flocked to PPL Park this weekend to see some fast-paced, hard-hitting action.

Sure, it wasn't your typical American football. But these men and women run like tailbacks, hit like linebackers and do it all without pads. Yeah, they're tough as nails.

The rapidly growing sport of Rugby Sevens was on display in the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship, and the region's response was so strong that organizers immediately announced plans to come back next June with the hope of making PPL Park a permanent home.

"We are building a truly national event in the Collegiate Rugby Championship and can't imagine better hosts than the Philadelphia region and PPL Park," said Jonathan First, president of USA Sevens. "We'll see you in Chester, Pa., in 2012."

In the first non-soccer event at PPL Park, more than 10,283 took in the lightning-fast games on Saturday, and another 7,611 were on hand yesterday.

Participating in the second annual CRC were 16 men's and eight women's teams, playing a combined 48 14-minute matches over 2 days. Dartmouth took home the cup on the men's side, defeating Army, 32-10, in the championship match. On the women's side, Army defeated Penn State, 33-29, for its second consecutive national championship.

After placing its inaugural CRC in Columbus, Ohio, low attendance numbers sent USA Sevens in search of another home for the country's premiere collegiate sevens competition. They chose Philadelphia - a decision that seems to have paid off.

"We had a feeling about Philadelphia being a very positive market for what is ultimately a new sport here in America," said Donal Walsh, director of operations at USA Sevens. "We had a feeling it would go well and I think that's been validated this weekend."

Among those teams invited to participate in this year's championship were the hometown favorite Temple Owls.

Temple submitted a men's team and women's team into the CRC, and both gained experience against the nation's top rugby programs while coming up short in their quest for the cup. The men went winless in three weekend matches, while the women ultimately lost to Penn State in the semifinals yesterday.

John Sciotto took over a Temple men's rugby program 4 years ago in need of a spark. After leading the Owls to the Division II national championship game in 2010, and elevating the program to Division I in 2011, Sciotto has delivered a full-fledged fire.

"This was really a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a lot of our guys," Sciotto said. "We're going to use this in a positive light even though the results didn't work out."

But don't think that a lack of success on the field kept the Temple faithful away. The boisterous contingent from North Broad Street stood out among the different cheering sections, and added to an already lively atmosphere at PPL Park.

"I think they absolutely were the most dynamic group here," the Temple coach said proudly. "The fans, our supporters, they were great."

The CRC has added to an already vibrant rugby community in the Philadelphia area.

The sport is offered at nearly 50 Philadelphia-area high schools, and the Philadelphia School District plans to add rugby to eight selected middle schools and recreation departments in the coming year. More than 150 Philadelphia students are expected to participate in the inaugural season.

With approximately 30,000 active rugby players and 100,000 alumni in the area, Philadelphia is considered to be among the largest rugby regions in the country.

And after the overwhelming success of the 2-day CRC at PPL Park, rugby officials expect that trend to continue.

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