The 7s qualifying season kicks things up a gear this weekend, with seven of the eight competitive regions in the countrygetting playing qualifiers this weekend.
For some they have already begun their seasons and for others it's the start of their qualification process, and there are a host of questions left to be answered.
This weekend the pick of the tournaments is the Midwest's Firehouse 7s, hosted by the Chicago Blaze. It is a tournament steeped in tradition and it's being held at one of the best rugby facilities in the nations, with some of the best 7s programs competing, it promises to be an exciting contest for all that are involved.
The tournament is one of the oldest in the country spanning back decades, and it is hosted by the Chicago Blaze, in one of the best rugby facilities in the states. According to Men's Midwest Coordinator, Al Lucas, it is always a great time playing there, "It's a marquee tournament, the facilities are absolutely beautiful, they've invested a lot into their club house, and will have three dedicated rugby pitches this weekend."
On the men's side, there is a total of three pools that will see a mixture of traditional powers, as well as teams rejoining the competition after considerable absences. Lucas, is excited to see how teams fare in the first weekend. 'It will be interesting to see how teams go this weekend, both the (Chicago) Lions and Metropolis have brought two squads, and the Detroit Tradesmen are participating for the first time in many years." Detroit aren't the only new comers this weekend, the Cleveland Rugby Academy will also be making their first appearance, according to Lucas it's a team mixed with college and club talent.
What makes the Firehouse stop even more interesting is that, unlike most other qualifying series, these preliminary tournaments lead into the Midwest Championships and the results of that will determine who advances through. Lucas explaining that, "We have three qualifiers followed by the Midwest championships... many teams will use these tournaments as a way of exploring player combinations prior to the championships...teams that win every tournament may not win the championship... so Saturday will be interesting for the teams to see where they are, but it's not the be all and end all."
For the women, there is just as much anticipation leading into their first qualifier. They too have a set of established teams returning, as well as some new faces. More importantly, however, they will be fielding their largest women's bracket yet. Growing the women's game has been a major focus of the Midwest, and they are starting to see the fruits of their labor. Women's 7s coordinator, Dawn McKenzie noting, "It's very satisfying, its something we've been working hard on... we've had great success with men's and women's clubs partnering to help get more women involved...It's also been great to see how women's teams have partnered with colleges to increase the level of retention within women's rugby."
On the field they are expecting some competitive play, McKenzie mentioning that, " Chicago Lions, Chicago North Shore and Metropolis will be the favorites... we've seen a lot from Grand Rapids and Columbus we will be looking to see what surprises they have in store for us... They've got some really great athletes on their team."
It's the start of the Frontier men's 7s qualifying season, and the first tournament is being hosted by one of the preeminent 7s programs, and current Division II Men's XVs National Champions, the Denver Barbarians. The Barbarians will be the favorites to take out their own tournament, having made it to the National Club 7s Cup Final eight times. One of their main challengers will be a Bulldog team out of Vail, who after successful seasons on the eastern seaboard have created a west coast team to compete as well. In their first year and tournament it will be worth taking note if their pedigree in the east matches their pedigree in the west. This is not to say it will be a two-horse race, the likes of the Aspen, the Kansas City Blues, and the Kansas City Hooligans will also pose a tough encounter for those they come up against.
Rites of Spring:
Mid-Atlantic 7s kicked off last weekend at the Blue Ball 7s tournament. This will be the second of four qualifiers for the men, but the second of three for the women. In the men's qualification it was Schuylkill that got off to the hot start taking the spoils last weekend, and if they can win again this weekend they will be in a strong position to claim the one automatic qualifying spot for the Mid-Atlantic. It won't be easy as they'll face strong competition from Beltway and NOVA both of whom are perennial contenders in the Mid-Atlantic.
For the women Scion won last week and will be looking to book their tickets to nationals this weekend with another strong position. With three spots available to the women from the Mid-Atlantic there is a high possibility that teams could secure their spots this weekend, but with competition coming from the likes of NOVA and DC Furies no game will be taken lightly.
Old Blue kicked their 2018 7s campaign off in style last weekend taking the first of the Northeast's four qualifiers, but despite their hot start, they'll know not to book their tickets too early as they are in one of the most competitive fields. They're facing strong challenges from the likes of New York Athletic Club (NYAC) and Mystic River who finished third and second last weekend respectively. There will be three spots available to the Northeast in the National Championships, so teams will be fighting to get the best seeding for Nationals to strengthen their chances of making a run at the cup.
The women will begin their qualification this weekend and there is bound to be some dramatic flourishes throughout the event. The creation of the Empire All-Stars may leave New York Rugby Club with a slightly depleted player pool. In Boston there will be a fierce rivalry between Beantown and Boston rugby, this weekend will provide a good insight into how these two cross town rivalries will play out throughout the rest of the circuit.
In the Pacific South both men and women get underway this weekend, and with only two qualifiers for the women, and three for the men teams will be making the most of every opportunity afforded to them. Belmont Shore will be entering this weekend, after a strong XVs season which saw them fall just short in the championship game, liking their chances of winning their fourth 7s championship. They will come up against some strong opposition such as Santa Monica who have made the nationals three years in a row. Not to be out done, OMBAC will be looking to get their 7s program back in the championship, despite having won the national 7s title six times, they have not made it back to the national stage since 2013.
For the women things will be tightly contested mainly between the San Diego Surfers and the Tempe Ninjas. These two programs represented the Pacific South last year at Nationals, but with only one spot open for a women's team from the pacific south this year, the rivalry will be even fiercer. The surfers will be favored given that they came second last year, but they will know that in a two tournament qualification series, every game will count.
It will likely be a three-way race for the sole automatic qualifier in the Men's Red River when things kick off this weekend. The race is shaping up between Dallas Rugby (last year's representative), the Austin Blacks and New Orleans Rugby. New Orleans has already had a winning start to their 7s season taking out the social division in the Music City 7s tournament. It will be interesting to see how their success in the Southern Region translates into the Red River.
On the women's side two spots will be up for grabs and from last year's form it looks as if it will be the American Rugby Pro 7s side out of Little Rock Arkansas and the Austin Valkyries that have the best chance of claiming the available spots. American Rugby Pro finished first in 2015, third in 2016 and eighth last year nationally. Austin, while not in possession of the silverware that American Rugby Pro owns, have been impressive of late making it to the nationals back to back years, and will try to make it a hat trick this year.
San Jose 7s:
The Pacific North will also start their 7s season this weekend when they participate in the San Jose 7s. The main attraction will be the appearance of last year's women's bronze medalists, Life West. They will have a lot of tough competition this year coming from the likes of the Berkeley All Blues, who are historically one of the nation's strongest clubs. The All Blues have also won the Club 7s National Championship twice.
For the men Life West will be the favorites, given their eigth place finish nationally last year, but while they may be the new kids on the block some traditional powers may be lurking looking to reclaim their dominance of the Pacific North. The likes of the Olympic Club, who has made the national championship event 11 times, will be sure to push Life West all the way en route to attempting to claim the sole qualifying spot on offer this year.