Written by Brian Hightower    Wednesday, 09 April 2014 17:18    PDF Print Write e-mail
Tiger Rugby Melrose Chronicles - Pt 2 Separating the Sheep from the Cactuses
Columns - Op-Eds

Brian Hightower is with Tiger Rugby at the home of 7s, Melrose, Scotland, and here's his second diary entry.

All photos by Max Rugby.

With the exception of Paul Emerick’s luggage and the bag full of Tiger Rugby tour kit, the entire party arrived within a few hours in Edinburgh. "YOU CAN TAKE OUR TRACK SUITS!!, BUT YOU CAN’T TAKE OUR..."

Down to business. Zach Pangelinan warms up amid the hills of Border Country. Max Rugby.
The author in the striped cap trying to make himself useful as the players yuk it up. . Max Rugby.
What it's all about. Max Rugby.
Looking a teensy bit too GQ for these pages, Paul Emerick thinks retirement agrees with him. Max Rugby.
That's more like it. Emerick dealing with a determined ballcarrier. Max Rugby.
Down to business. An early-morning workout. Max Rugby.
thretton Palamo scaring the locals. Max Rugby.
Hanging loose with Ata Malifa. Max Rugby.
All the guys. Standing, left to right, Don Pati, Mike Ziegler, Perry Baker, Taylor Howden, James Walker (in front of post), Zar Lawrence, Zach Pangelinan, Paul Emerick, Paul Holmes. Crouching, l to r: Darrin Claasen, Ata Mlifa, Thretton Palamo, Dominic Mauer. Max Rugby.

Day Break in Melrose
It is early Wednesday morning. Fog shrouds the grass covered peaks of the Eildon Mountains. At the base of these hills, where remnants of an ancient Roman road  remain, and newborn lambs dot the landscape, picturesque Melrose stirs. Melrose Abbey, which is the religious centerpiece of this idyllic town and the burial ground of the heart of Robert the Bruce (literally), is undergoing another facelift. The Abbey has been under construction for over a thousand years. This is not an indictment of Melrosian masonry, but the historical consequence of grumpy English monarchs who saw fit to raze it every couple hundred years or so. In stark contrast, an entirely new addition to the town: grandstands for a few thousand spectators, a party pavilion, concessions and a VIP tent, have all been erected hurriedly in a few days anticipating the weekend bash, which will pack this tiny town to the rafters.

Gracious Hosts
Apropos of the history of this beautiful Borders burg, the Tiger tour itself is being received the old fashioned way. All of the players and support staff have been billeted by Melrose Club host families (apparently the losers of a member lottery), who will house and feed them for the first three nights. Actually, the arrangement could not have worked better for the players as it has accelerated the affinity that they feel for the town and its generous people. As a natural extension of the hosts’ own enthusiasm for the game, the Tigers on tour have been taken in like family, and will likely earn a few thousand new fans on Saturday...right up until they face the home team from Melrose, that is.

Tigers off and Running
The tour party has begun to gel. During their first day together, there has been a light training run followed by a stop at the local youth rugby clinic. About a hundred 7-to-10-year-olds dressed in Melrose Rugby jerseys were in attendance when the U.S. tourists dropped by. Highlights included watching 9-year-olds trying to run into the tackle bag that Thretton Palamo was holding, and a dive-bombing leg tackle by a 3rd grader on American legend Brian Vizard, which earned the little tyke MVP honors.   

All the while, the Melrose Rugby Football Club has become home base. A classic Scottish rugby club environment, the MRFC (founded 1877) has an intimate grandstand, dressing rooms, and a clubhouse with a bar and taproom adorned with photos, trophies and jerseys that document its storied past. Laughter fills the booths as the boys unwind, usually emanating from the direction of Ata Malifa. James Walker has chosen his Tigers well. It is a humble, self-effacing bunch, with a good balance of youth and experience, trying to achieve something unprecedented. They have walked into history, literally. The country, the town and the club are a reminder of the roots of this galvanizing game. "Youth is wasted on the young," so the saying goes. It is unlikely that the players know how rare this opportunity is. It is an experience whose luster will get brighter over time.   

Most notorious waterboys in Scotland
Brian Vizard is the Manager of this tour. He is one of the most prolific Eagles of all time, and his laid back manner and humility belie the notoriety that his name has earned both from his playing days, and now as an ambassador of the global game. We are trying to keep the local elementary school children away from his knees.

As alluded to in the first installment, Paul Emerick is on the tour. He is an assistant coach for Tiger, a modern American rugby icon, and, most importantly, a sea of unspoken confidence for some of the younger players. He has been on a neverending rugby tour for the past fifteen years, and has worthwhile knowledge to pass on like, how to run through a gap, and how to manage referees.

Coming up...We’ll find out who is older, tour guru Keith Seaber or Gandalf.

Written by Brian Hightower    Sunday, 06 April 2014 23:53    PDF Print Write e-mail
The Melrose Chronicles - Part 1
Columns - Op-Eds

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.

Melrose 7sBids 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.”

The Den:
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...  

Written by Pat Clifton    Friday, 26 April 2013 15:13    PDF Print Write e-mail
Goff, Clifton Make DI-AA Predictions
Columns - Op-Eds

Written by Pat Clifton    Friday, 26 April 2013 15:09    PDF Print Write e-mail
Goff, Clifton Make DI-A Picks
Columns - Op-Eds

Written by Pat Clifton    Wednesday, 24 April 2013 09:23    PDF Print Write e-mail
Goff, Clifton Make DII College Predictions
Columns - Op-Eds

Alex Goff and Pat Clifton have filled out DI-A, DI-AA and DII men's brackets, and we'll release their picks from a division leading up to Saturday's kicking off of the DI-A Quarterfinals and the DI-AA and DII Sweet 16.

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