Honoring a longstanding rugby tradition, former-Eagle Brian Hightower has become an extraneous "staff member" on a tour that is already top-heavy. Throughout the week, he'll try to justify his travels by providing exclusive stories about the Tiger Rugby tour from the birthplace of 7s.
Town of Melrose Stalked by a Tiger
Next Saturday, in the pastoral Borders region of Scotland, the population of Melrose (est. 2,307) will increase exponentially as rugby 7s makes its yearly pilgrimage back to its roots. Rugby aficionados know that the abbreviated game began in this tiny hamlet in Scotland as a desperate diversion hatched by a local purveyor of rump roasts in the late 19th century, and has now catapulted to Olympic proportions.
Bids to the one day, knockout-style affair are an extreme rarity, especially if your team’s national anthem does not begin with the words "O Flower of Scotland..." In the past, legendary international outfits like Stellenbosch (SA), Bay of Plenty (NZ) and Randwick (AUS) have garnered the few remaining invitations to this, the original 7s tournament. However, last fall, with help from USA Rugby Hall of Famer Keith Seaber, one of the coveted spots for the Melrose tournament was dangled before James Walker, Director of Tiger Rugby. Like the emblematic feline on his jerseys, he pounced.
A Different Sort of Cat
This is all part of the plan for Walker. Make no mistake, he knows that the invite to Melrose is a special honor, but in many ways it is a logical progression of a vision that has been years in the making. The evolution of Tiger Rugby has seen a gritty neophyte on the rugby stage a dozen years ago develop into a perennial 7s powerhouse, eventually spawning an Olympic Development Academy (ODA) which boasts the only full time residency program outside of Chula Vista. But you won’t find Walker or his Sergeant at Arms, Paul Holmes, resting on their laurels. Among their goals is "...to be the best invitational touring side in the world," according to the straight-shooting Director.
The players that have fueled the Tiger engine in the last decade read like a Who’s Who of American rugby: Stanford, Dahl, Enosa, Hamilton, Malifa x2, Hawkins ... 23 Eagles in all, Walker can name them if you ask. And while Tiger Rugby always seems to have a bumper crop of talent between the white lines, what occurs off the field for Walker’s lads seems to bear the most fruit and sets them apart from other tourists.
One of the original Tigers, Dallen Stanford, recently waxed nostalgic about how these trips are "unlike any other tours." According to the slippery South African, who had arrived from Capetown in 2002 to join the first Tiger iteration known as Oxy Old Boys, "yes, there is a professional environment on the field, but James is able to bring a group of people in and bond them together. Its about enjoying yourself, and genuinely caring about each other."
For Stanford, the logical extension of this priority is "a relaxed team who can to express themselves on the pitch."
Veteran Taylor Howden will captain the side next week in Melrose. In a recent email to the players, he concisely delivered what has become the cultural bedrock of Tiger Rugby:
Most, if not all of you, have been on tours before so you know what its about. Create relationships with your teammates early in the tour, get to know one another and learn parts of people from the training time we have the first few days to the downtime and display that relationship in your rugby
Tiger has yet to win an international, though they’ve made two Cup Finals. Howden thinks that they are poised to change that on Saturday. “I think we’re ready. James and I have talked about it.”
Melrose is one of the toughest tournaments in the world to win. Unlike the standard pool-and-brackets shuffle, Ned Haig’s format continues as it was devised 131 years ago, that is, the winners move on, and the losers drink Scotch. The team that lifts the coveted Ladies Cup at the end is the only undefeated side remaining.
Daunting? Perhaps. But Tiger Rugby has a potent roster that will be hard for opponents to overlook, and hard to game plan for, for that matter. It is a team that has size, speed, and experience, and ultimately leaves the coaches with plenty of options. Pick your poison with this bunch. Try to catch Perry Baker on the corner, or how about a head up tackle on a rampaging Thretton Palamo. Pati and Malifa can carve like a Ginsu knife, and if all else fails, perhaps former All Black 7s player Zar Lawrence can create a moment.
However, as always, the first challenge is to try to get all the players to Edinburgh on the same afternoon. Updates to come....stay tuned.
Tiger Rugby Melrose 7s Team: Perry Baker, Darin Claasen, Taylor Howden (c), Zar Lawrence, Ata Malifa, Dominic Mauer, Thretton Palamo, Zach Pangelinan, Don Pati, Mike Ziegler.
Coming soon...A rare Cactus sighting in the land of the thistle...