USA is ready to swoop in on Singapore 7s

The National Stadium looms large in Kallang Bay on the East Coast of Singapore. If you’ve ever considered attending an event there, one not to be missed – especially by American sports fans – is the international rugby 7s tournament running April 13 and 14.

The Singapore 7s is part of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series – the main route for qualification to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The series is a yearly league that features the top seven-a-side rugby teams in the world. And that includes the US men and women’s teams.

As we who live here all know, Singapore is a showcase city with much to offer an international crowd for an event: a beautiful city, modern infrastructure and a world-class sports facilities.

Singapore was awarded ‘host city’ status in 2015 with the first event in April 2016 on a four-year cycle (2016-2019). Kiwi-born Calven Bland, known around town as The Beige Assassin and having been in and around the rugby game for 42 of his 47 years says of the process: “It was a fairly comprehensive bid which was a collaboration with a French party who would help the SRU (Singapore Rugby Union) run the first 3 events. We had a specific bid team and all major decisions were routed through the Singapore Rugby Union Management Committee for endorsement.”

Bland holds a number of titles in the game, including Singapore Rugby Union (SRU) Management Committee Member, SRU Competitions Commissioner, Wanderers RFC Vets Coordinator, Titans (kids) RFC Founder & Director and Titans RFC Mini Rugby Coordinator. Although he was not on the bid team, he did help source a bid manager whom he’d known from the rugby community, as rugby family provides some of the best connections.

He says “[Singapore] winning the bid for a leg in the HSBC 7s Series was important for world rugby, as it helps with increasing the profile of the sport in Asia, especially in the lead up to Rugby World Cup in Japan in 2019.” Not only does it boost tourism, having a showcase event at the new National Stadium raises the profile of rugby as a minority sport in the city state.

Even if you’re not a rugby fan, Bland encourages people to give rugby 7s a try. “As with all rugby 7s, the competition is intense and there have been a couple of surprise winners over the years; Kenya in 2016, Canada in 2017 and favorites Fiji in 2018.”

Now, how about our American team, The Eagles? While the US men’s rugby program has often been called a minnow or second tier team, that is no longer the case with the US 7s men’s team.

In fact, The Eagles have been ranked number one all season as of February. The “Sleeping Giant,” as the press calls them, now has insomnia and is a force to be reckoned with.

The men’s Eagles made rugby history by winning their fourth straight Silver medal, having won second place in Cape Town, Dubai, Hamilton (New Zealand) and Sydney 7s. At the time of writing, they were the only men’s team to medal at every competition this 7s season and were ranked number one, tied with 2018 World Cup Champions New Zealand.

When it comes to lauding who has elevated USA Rugby 7s in the worldview, the Eagles have one name: Perry Baker.

He has scored 179 tries for The Eagles and has been named the World Rugby Sevens Player of the Year for the last two years in a row. He’s been injured recently, but has absolutely smashed American rugby expectations with his lightning speed and athleticism. Think stop, go, juke, switchback and blow-them-away finishing speed. He goes by the name ‘Speed Stick’ (as in the old deodorant brand) because, well, he’s thin, fast and presumably never sweats it. We’re hoping to see him return from injured reserve (IR) for Singapore 7s.

However, despite some criticism of the US team’s strength, they’re not a one-man show. Bland praises Danny Barrett as great to watch. At 6’3” tall, 220 pounds, in his late 20s, he’s a prime candidate for American awesomeness. “The big man Danny Barrett is a personal favorite with his stiff-arm fends. He runs down the sideline, bumping off opposition with ease,” Bland surveys.

Chicago-based 200-level women’s rugby coach, Rugby Illinois (USA) Board Member and former Division One player, Stephanie Esposito, also says USA Head Coach Mike Friday has done a good job leading the current squad. “They seem to know how to work together and communicate as a team. One benefit is that the 7s side actually trains and practices together regularly whereas the15s tends to be meet up 5 days before a match and see how things work. The fact that they are putting in money and time to really develop the team is showing. The strength of players is great and as they continue to stay on the top of the competition it will naturally raise more awareness of the sport and attention of people here.”

Another super-fast player, Carlin Isles, who can chase down and outrun the fastest of the fast in world rugby, is expected to continue to do so for Singapore 7s. Isles has been named the fastest player on the planet in past years and the winger has put up 13 tries this 7s season. Esposito warns that, to beat the US’s world-class speedsters, teams have to close down any open space for them to run. She says: “The US team’s opponents need to really focus on the basic flat line defense and not leave a gap for Isles or Baker to get through, because if they do it’s over.

“With 7s being such a quick game and having players that can burn down the field, you are opening up the chance for them to not just score but really hit a high score in a short amount of time and place it well in the end zone to get the kicks. And we’ve all seen how those extra few points can make or break a match.”

Although the Eagles squad is near and dear to our hearts, certainly there are other international contenders for winning the tournament. Other top teams include World 7s Champions, New Zealand, fast-moving Wallabies from Australia and one can never rule out England for a good tournament performance. Kenya has also been known to smoke the competition now and then, having won the first Singapore 7s tournament in 2016.

Fraser Jamieson, a Singapore expat from Scotland, sees power performances coming from the Pacific Islands: “I think Fiji are looking good again after a few years out of the reckoning. They are always an entertaining side,” he says, as are their magnanimous, blue-wigged fans. He adds though that his heart (and costume) is still behind his home team. “There have been a few shock winners previously at Singapore 7s, so why not Scotland this year?”

Indeed, true to Jamieson’s wildcard predictions, the Eagles came in second in the Singapore 7s 2017 final to our dear Canadian neighbors from The Great White North, then ranked 9th; their only series win to date. So, there’s no ruling any team out!

Statistics and player profiles are a fun part of any sport. But rugby 7s also has an additional fun side. And I mean fun as in fun with friends, family fun, dress-up-in-costumes fun, dancing-during-commercial-breaks fun and more.

Singapore 7s has been building on its costuming efforts since its inception in 2016 with more shenanigans to be had every year. Jamieson says attendance and the fun that comes with it increases every year: “It’s a great family atmosphere as well as a party. I have been to Hong Kong 7s many times and Singapore 7s can stand on its own two feet. The costume side of things is growing and plenty of kids are doing it, as well as adults.”

For Singapore costumes, there have been the Singapore Scotsmen, Viking Ladies (props to the Bucks Women’s Rugby team), WWE Wrestlers (from The Wanderers Rugby Club) and even a group of families who dressed up as various MRT stops, such as Chinese Gardens, Orchard Road and Botanic Gardens, among others. For Eagles supporters, you can see flags, super heroes, cheerleaders and Eagle-head hats across the stands.

There is plenty in the way of entertainment, too. Past musical performers have included The Village People in 2018 and Singapore’s own Singapore Idol finalist, rock/jazz dynamo Leandra Lane, who brought down the house in 2017. This year’s musical events will include American rock band, Smash Mouth, who will bang out such hits as “All Star” and “Walkin’ on the Sun.” Also, listen up for nostalgic 80s songs with Broadway’s “Rock of Ages” performances.

Another fun part of Singapore 7s is that it’s pretty easy to spot the players around town, usually in the Marina Bay-area hotels. Many famous ruggers, such as the South African Blitzboks and New Zealand All-Blacks, have been seen eating at Millenia Walk and Suntec, while Scotland’s team have made regular appearances at the Ronin Café on Hong Kong Street.

Wherever you may be in mid-April, The Eagles will have landed in the Lion City. Hopefully, they’ll catch a glimpse of the Gold. Nevertheless, it will be a proud weekend to be both American and a rugby fan. Go Eagles!