This weekend, 16 of the top collegiate rugby teams battle it out for the first-ever Sevens National Championship at Columbus Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.
A joint venture between NBC and USA Sevens, LLC, the Collegiate Championship Invitational beings Friday and goes through Sunday.
Sevens, the 7-on-7 version of rugby, has gained massive momentum in the past eight months after the International Olympic Committee admitted the sport into the Olympics starting in 2016.
Sevens was already popular the world over for it's fast pace, high scoring, and nail-biting action. Now, the American sporting public are getting a taste of rugby, and they're loving it.
“We’ve brought together the best-of-the-best for the inaugural USA Sevens Rugby Collegiate Championship Invitational,” said Dan Lyle, tournament director of USA Sevens Rugby. “It’s a great opportunity to expose the sport to a mass audience in anticipation of inclusion in the Olympics.”
This weekend is a major step toward breaking rugby sevens into the American sporting market. The tournament broadcasts live on NBC on Saturday and Sunday, and marks the first time rugby has been broadcast on a major American television network. NBC is offering expanded coverage of the tournament through Universal Sports, and it will also be streaming online via Hulu.
The 16 schools in competition for the title include Arizona, Arizona State, Army, Bowling Green, Cal, Dartmouth, Florida, Harvard, Indiana, Navy, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Penn State, San Diego State, Tennessee, and Utah.
Aside from the honor of hoisting the championship trophy, Dallas Mavericks owner and former rugby player, Mark Cuban, has offered a $20,000 scholarship to the winning team.
“I played rugby at Indiana and it has always been one of my passions,” said Cuban. “Between the inception of this USA Sevens Rugby Collegiate Championship Invitational, and the reintroduction of Rugby Sevens as an Olympic sport for the first time in over 85 years, it’s an important time for us rugby supporters to help build on the momentum, and I’m honored to do it.”
A portion of Cuban's $20,000 contribution, roughly $5,000, will go towards supporting the Ohio Classic Sevens, which features high-school-aged competitors, who are the future of the sport. The money is intended to support the operations of the rugby teams and their student athletes.
“Mark Cuban is a great friend to the sport of rugby and his support has helped us get to where we are,” said Lyle. “We are so thrilled to have Mark in our corner as we to take Rugby Sevens to the next level.”
“James Naismith invented basketball to give him something to do in between rugby seasons and with the similar focuses on teamwork, speed, and strategy between rugby and basketball," said Cuban. "It’s no surprise I am similarly passionate about the two sports."
So, who’s going to win it all?
California comes in as a serious favorite to pull off the first double (15s and sevens) championship in collegiate history.
Cal boasts a lineup full of some of the best college rugby players in America, including Colin Hawley and Blaine Scully, who are fresh off playing for the U.S. national team on the IRB World Series, and will be in top form after competeing against some of the best sevens players on the planet.
Cal’s depth doesn’t stop there either. Expect them to take Pool A in fine fashion.
The real battle in Pool A is for the second spot, which still gets a team into the championship round. New England entrants Dartmouth and Harvard set up an Ivy League battle, but with an uncertain outcome. Dartmouth may have the upper hand in 15s, but Harvard won’t go easily in sevens.
Harvard has enticed some cross-over athletes from other sports, but will that translate into wins? Notre Dame rounds out the pool and should be competitive, but not quite ready to challenge for a title.
Pool A Prediction: Cal, Dartmouth, Harvard, Notre Dame
Things aren’t as clear-cut in Pool B, but San Diego State comes into the tournament as the favorite. The Aztecs boast another U.S. national team player in speedster Alex Ross, and they play a wide open style of rugby that translates well into sevens.
They’ll get plenty of challenge from Tennessee, Florida, and Indiana, making this an incredibly fun pool to follow.
Tennessee and Florida bring their SEC rivalry onto the rugby pitch, and it should be a great matchup. Tennessee could be a darkhorse team in the entire tournament and boasts one of the top players in the tournament in Benji Goff.
Indiana is another team that could surprise and possibly pull off an upset. The team has been training hard, and has some horses on the squad.
Keep your eye on this pool folks, it should produce some really good games.
Pool B Prediction: San Diego State, Tennessee, Indiana, Florida
Pool C is another great pool with four teams that could all challenge for top rights in the pool. This pool boasts not one, but two big rivalries that will be on display for fans.
The service academies, Navy and Army, both have plenty of history in 15s, and expect them to bring the same sort of intense rivalry to the field of sevens. Both teams have a lot of support from their institutions and will come into the tournament fit and ready to play. Their only downfall may be the limited amount of sevens that they have played.
Arizona and Arizona State could also surprise in the pool. Of the two rivals, Arizona has the upper hand and may challenge for a spot in the championship round. They've added rugby player, turned linebacker Brett Thompson to the squad. Big and mobile, Thompson plays for the University of Arizona football team as well.
Arizona State is another team that has some good players and coaching, but may not be quite ready to challenge for a title.
Pool C Prediction: Navy, Army, Arizona, Arizona State
The final pool, Pool D, may end up as a battle for second place, but you never know. Utah comes in with some serious firepower and certainly may challenge for the championship.
The Utes are led by Thretton Palamo, who has an extensive amount of experience playing for the National team in both sevens and 15s. Palamo made history in 2007 when he became the youngest player to play in the Rugby World Cup, where he came on for the U.S. against South Africa.
Palamo is joined by Don Pati, a former age-grade national team player, and the two should make a formidable duo.
Barring an upset, Penn State, Ohio State, and Bowling Green may be playing for second place in the pool.
The Ohio State/Penn State battle will be the one to watch in this pool as the two Big 10 rivals go at it with hopes of advancing to the Championship round. Penn State is a perennial power in rugby, and has a budding star in Kevin Kimble.
Ohio State is looking for a boost from the large home crowd and they just may get it. The Buckeyes get a boost to their squad, as they welcome Nate Ebner back onto their team.
Ebner switched sports last year going from rugby to the Buckeye football team. Ebner along with Mickey Franco give the Buckeyes some serious experience on the field.
Bowling Green may not get much attention, but they could be a surprise team in the tournament, and are capable of taking out any of their opponents. Bowling Green is anchored by former U.S. age-grade player Nick Viviani.
Pool D Prediction: Utah, Ohio State, Penn State, Bowling Green
After pool play, the teams are broken into two brackets based on their finish in the pool rounds.
The top two teams from each pool move onto the championship bracket, and a chance to take home the title. The bottom two teams from each pool go into the challenger bracket, which is the consolation group.
Once the teams move out of pool play, it's all single-elimination from there on out. The smallest mistake can end a team's run at the title, and gives added drama to the tournament as the pressure rises.
The selection committee did an excellent job putting the pools together for the tournament. Each group has a traditional rivalry to anchor the pool, while at the same time, they all very evenly balanced.
One of the tag lines from the popular IRB Sevens World Series is that no pool is easy, and the same holds true here. Aside from a couple of favorites, there are 12-14 other teams that can challenge for a spot in the championship round.
Now, if the Collegiate Championship can mirror the IRB Series and produce a few upsets, then things will get very interesting.
“Rugby Sevens is an exciting, fast-paced sport that is growing in global popularity, participation and interest,” said NBC Sports executive vice president Jon Miller.
The potential for this tournament in the future is limitless.
Sources have indicated that the tournament will be expanded as soon as next year to include a handful of qualifying tournaments. The ideal scenario will have four tournaments, totalling 64 of the best collegiate sevens teams in the country. Those 64 teams will then be whittled down to just 16 remaining teams for the championship tournament.
So watch out America, this weekend in Columbus could just be the tip of the iceberg.
NBC Sports live coverage, 4-6 p.m. ET on June 5 and 6
Universal Sports live coverage, 2:00-4 p.m. ET on June 5 and 6
NBC Mobile live simulcast, 4-6 p.m. ET on June 5 and 6
Hulu.com full event coverage available on-demand in HD quality video.