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June 12, 2007

Mud, blood and gonzo athleticism: Kentucky Fried Sevens tourney brings regional rugby teams to Louisville

faster and higher: Photo courtesy of Eric Raney Rugby is like American football, sans padding. This weekend, Louisville plays host to a “sevens” tourney, a faster and higher-scoring brand of rugby. In this photo, Louisville’s Tyson Lane moves up the field.Pat Johnson, known as “Fetch” to his teammates, yanks at tiny veins hanging like dark red seaweed from his arm and examines them with a yawn from behind a wrecked elbow. The wound is gaping, 4 inches long, and seeping blood onto his muddied rugby jersey and the floor of the bar. The bartender looks mightily chagrined but says nothing, for Fetch is not a man to be lightly chastised. The former International Rugby Union player and two-time Rugby World Cup competitor holds his elbow together with one scar-rippled hand while taking a long drag of beer with the other. Pulling the elbow up close for admiration, he suddenly spills out a grin only a rugger could love. “See this?” he says, laughing as the gash leers open. “This was just in rugby practice. Imagine what our games are like.”The games, indeed, are gonzo athleticism at its finest. Minus the padding of American football but with all the attendant ruthless aggression, rugby is an avatar for athletic mavericks, and for that it boasts a doggedly passionate international fan base. Fetch is one of the many colorful local personalities who comprise the Louisville Rugby team, now entering into the summer season of its 38th year. The team won the USA Rugby Midwest Championships for 2007, and is poised for an aggressive summer playing Seven-a-Side rugby, a shorter, quicker game than the regular 15-man seasonal play.“This game faster and higher: Photo courtesy of Eric Raney Rugby is like American football, sans padding. This weekend, Louisville plays host to a “sevens” tourney, a faster and higher-scoring brand of rugby. In this photo, Louisville’s Tyson Lane moves up the field. is a lot more wide open than regular rugby,” Johnson says. “It’s hard to compare to even football, because it’s such an aggressive, fast-paced game with so few players. I might compare it to arena football, as it has a lot of scoring, but it’s a bit different to watch because there’s fewer people but with a great deal of space to cover defensively. That makes for a good show of a really quick, aggressive playing style.” The action in Sevens is fast and furious, with an average of five touchdowns scored per game.The Hayes-Kennedy Park has been christened the new home of Louisville Rugby, and this Saturday the Kentucky Fried Sevens Tournament will serve as its debutante ball. Seven-a-Side rugby features seven-man teams on a 70-yard field in a shortened, 15-minute game. The KF7’s round-robin tournament will feature teams trotting in from across the South and Midwest, including the 2006 USA Sevens Rugby national finalists team from Scioto Valley (Columbus, Ohio). The English author Oscar Wilde once described rugby as a good occasion for keeping 30 bullies far from the center of the city, but modern rugby players would certainly eschew Wilde’s crass characterization. The majority of men on the team boast professional degrees and tightly knit families. They’re quick to point out that membership is not merely an excuse to party, though a beer is often not far from their hands (they say as much). “Win the match and rule the party,” one player offers of the team’s motto. He is joking. But one of the more ardent traditions in the sport is the “rugby social,” in which the hosting team offers post-game hospitality to its competitors. While the social can be as humble as beers and sandwiches at a local pub, some teams view after-match socials as a point of pride; pig roasts and steak dinners are not unheard of.Coach Eric Raney points out that no matter how aggressive the on-field action is, most players leave it on the field, and friendships are tightly knit and long-standing. In fact, Raney says accord between teams often guarantees a rugby athlete a place to stay, assistance with finding work and a built-in social group if he should find himself in a new city. The nature of the game itself could be one factor. Prop forward Tyson Lane, who played college football, describes play as, “faster and higher: Photo courtesy of Eric Raney Rugby is like American football, sans padding. This weekend, Louisville plays host to a “sevens” tourney, a faster and higher-scoring brand of rugby. In this photo, Louisville’s Tyson Lane moves up the field.uch more free flowing but comparable faster and higher: Photo courtesy of Eric Raney Rugby is like American football, sans padding. This weekend, Louisville plays host to a “sevens” tourney, a faster and higher-scoring brand of rugby. In this photo, Louisville’s Tyson Lane moves up the field.. A rugby player is challenged to be in sync with his teammates, to make decisions on the fly. This leads to a strong cohesion between teammates, great sportsmanship and camaraderie.” Team captain Jason Leavens distinguishes the game thusly — as having a “graceful violence” to it — but those looking for a brawl should stick to Pay-Per-View. Notes Fetch, “There’s a lot of aggression, but not as much simple violence. You’ve got big, strong, fast men hitting each other at full speed, but there’s not much fighting. The risk of getting red-carded and hurting your team means that most players refrain from exchanging blows. You can go to a boxing match for that.”The Kentucky Fried Sevens tournament kicks off Saturday at 10 a.m. at Hayes-Kennedy Park off River Road, with the championship game scheduled for 3 p.m.  Admission is free. The Louisville Rugby club asks spectators to bring a canned food item for Kentucky Harvest Foodbank. For more information, go to www.louisvillerugby.com. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com