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Tournament director Jon Hinkin predicted at least 85,000 rugby fans would fill the seats in Sam Boyd Stadium over three days to watch the world’s best players compete, touting the uniqueness of the event.
“People often describe it as Olympics meets Mardi Gras because everybody shows up in costume, everybody’s singing along, everybody’s having a great time and it’s a family environment,” Hinkin said. “It’s an unbelievably positive, infective atmosphere where everybody dresses up and acts silly and, oh, by the way, there’s world class athletes Friday, Saturday and Sunday all day long performing for you.”
1. THE WOMEN ARE BACK
For the first time since 2014, the women’s tournament will be in Las Vegas. The women had been playing in Atlanta.
“Just in Atlanta, the crowds weren’t big. There’s a rugby community around there, but not as big as something like Las Vegas,” U.S. women’s coach Richie Walker said. “The stadium was nice and all that, but we just didn’t grow the crowds, and that’s just because it’s not a tough place to get to, but not many people in the rugby community live out in that area, so coming to Las Vegas made sense and so we’re very happy with it.”
2. KEEP AN EYE ON THESE AMERICANS
Huge posters, 100 feet long, adorn the outside of Sam Boyd Stadium.
On one is Perry Baker.
Baker, 30, hails from Florida and is a star on the men’s team.
“(He) is just an absolute beast of a player,” Hinkin said. “He’s one of the fastest in the entire world and just graceful.”
On the other, Alev Kelter, a scrum half from Alaska.
“She played soccer and hockey … for Wisconsin … then she came onto rugby and just shot her way onto the national team,” Hinkin said.
3. WILL FIJI CONTINUE ITS DOMINANCE?
The Fijian men have won back-to-back tournaments in Las Vegas.
They come into the event third in the world, and the group has had quite the successful year, taking the gold medal in the Olympics. That was the country’s first Olympic medal.
“The celebration was for a week. They just really stopped the country,” Hinkin said. “Those guys are heroes all around the world to their Fijian fans.”
The South African men lead the standings with 85 points, 17 more than second-place England.
“They have just been crushing everybody this year,” Hinkin said. “They’ve lost a few of their superstars, but that hasn’t slowed them down.”
Seabelo Senatla enters the tournament as the top male scorer.
5. HOW ABOUT THE WOMEN?
The U.S. women are sixth after a strong showing in Sydney, where they finished second.
The three Olympic medal-winning countries — Australia, New Zealand and Canada — are still the top teams in the competition, though not in that order.