The most exposure the majority of us Americans have had to rugby probably happened in one of Matt Damon's glorious moments in Clint Eastwood's Invictus. Marco Riolo, vice president and tournament director of the Grand Rapids Rugby Football Club hopes to change that, starting with Rugby City, U.S.A., a term given to Grand Rapids.
"Rugby City, U.S.A. was a coined term created to brand Grand Rapids as the place where rugby will become the most powerful in the Midwest, and also the U.S.," Riolo said. "Rugby is really going to be a leading force in what goes on in the area. We are rugby."
Riolo, a player himself, says this year's 7s Tournament, held at Riverside Park for the first time, is going to be pivotal in the sport's growth.
"It'll be the first time it's been downtown. It'll be the first opportunity for people really to be a part of the experience," Riolo said. "We expect this to be a very accessible tournament -- it's athletic, it's free, it's right along the bike trails. Whoever is a part of it will gain from the exposure of the tournament, as well as be able to view athletics of the highest quality."
For this tournament alone, 30 to 40 teams from across the Midwest, and even nation, compete for bids to qualify for national tournaments to come.
"We've had teams come from as far as Washington D.C. and Colorado. Since we're a qualifier, it puts us at a very powerful spot. These are teams that are gaining points to run for nationals, so we have a lot of people looking at Grand Rapids. And the city's economic growth that comes from the tournament adds a piece to the pie."
While some people may be put off by assumptions of how brutal a sport rugby is, Riolo says it really isn't and people shouldn't be discouraged by it.
"When you look at rugby across the globe, kids are starting to play at 2, 3, 4 or 5 years old, and by the time they're 18 or 19, they've played 10,000-plus hours, all while being taught the proper techniques, strategy, and more importantly, the respect of the sport," Riolo said. "We may be a little off now compared to New Zealand or Australia, but 10 to 20 years from now we'll look back and realize we helped lay the foundation for what we think is going to be a huge thing in the U.S."
Laying a foundation is one of the reasons why the Grand Rapids Rugby Football Club carries on its Rookie Rugby program, to educate the youth so that they can carry on the torch of the sport, like Riolo himself has done.
"Once you've played, it's always in your blood. It never gets out of your blood. It's just in ya," Riolo said. "If you saw someone overseas or in an airport with a rugby shirt on and you walk up and say ‘Hey, we have rugby in Grand Rapids' -- that single phrase, just letting that person know you are familiar with the sport -- you'd have an immediate friend wherever you go. There's no smoke and mirrors in rugby. It's just real people. Most of us pay out of our pocket for half the things we do because we simply love the sport, we love the camaraderie that comes with it."
So whether your copy of Invictus is scratched from its overuse or you plan on coming out to the event, you should pat yourself on the back for being ahead of the curve.
"Rugby is such a fraternity of women and men around the world, and it has such an international following," Riolo said. "Imagine if it was like that here in Grand Rapids. It's going to grow and it's going to be massive."
Photo: Courtesy of Grand Rapids Rugby Football Club