The Molly Pitchers from Johnson City (in blue) take on the Hellbenders. (Dave Boyd/Johnson City Press)
Rugby sevens, one of the world’s oldest pigskin games, was played Saturday during the Blue Plum Festival. Fans and players alike endured the heat as 13 men’s teams and six women’s teams battled for the top prize.
Rugby sevens is a version of rugby union in which teams use seven players instead of 15 while playing shorter matches. The game, a product of Melrose, Scotland, is only played in the summer months and is now recognized as an Olympic sport, with its debut set for the 2016 Summer Olympics.
A normal rugby match lasts 80 minutes or more, but a sevens match consists of two seven-minute halves with a one-minute halftime break. Two ten-minute halves are allowed in the final of a competition. A “try,” similar to a touchdown, is five points and a kick counts for two.
The Blue Plum Festival added the tournament in 2011, and it has been a popular event for the region’s teams to compete in. This year included teams from Nashville; Knoxville; Cleveland, Tenn.; Chattanooga; Roanoke, Va.; Charlotte, N.C.; Atlanta; and New York, among others.
The Johnson City Rugby Football Club produced three teams this year: JC A, men from ETSU, Tusculum College and regular players; JC B, who advanced the farthest Saturday with two wins and two losses; and the Old Boys, veteran players of Johnson City rugby. Neither team made it to Saturday’s finals, but captain Sean Pickel was happy to gain extra competition this year after two recent tournament cancellations in the region.
“We’re trying to expand each year,” he said. “It’s the main moneymaker for our club.”
Pickel also noted that the team wasn’t as prepared this year. The team won the tournament back in 2011.
“We’ve maybe had a month or so of practice,” he said. “Some guys have been regularly playing with the team and for others this was their first time. Maybe we didn’t have the chemistry that we needed. But the big thing in rugby is experience and knowing the game.”
While the Johnson City men’s team is experienced, having been around since 1981, the women’s team, the Twin State Molly Pitchers, was formed only 14 months ago. In Saturday’s match against top ranked UT-Knoxville, the women only lost by one try with a score of 15-10.
“One of the most empowering things a female can do is rugby,” captain Brittany Higgins said. “It’s about community. We have women ages 18-37. We all come from different walks of life. For some of our girls, this was their first tournament ever and we did incredible.”
Women’s coach Gordon Kruger was especially proud to see his team taking down other women.
“It’s all for the love of the game,” he said. “This tournament was round-robin style. Everyone played a minimum of three games, winners played winners and losers played losers. Everybody plays everybody.”
Only around 14 teams were expected for this year’s Blue Plum tournament, but several social leagues as well as college teams from the region showed up for a day of friendly competition on the muddy fields of Civitan Park.