Most Big Ten tournaments are played at host sites on college campuses or, in the case of men’s and women’s basketball, at a large arena in a big city such as Indianapolis or Chicago.
The Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference Sevens championship fits neither category. It will be here in Columbus on Saturday.
“It’s going to be interesting,” said Tom Rooney, director of rugby at Ohio State. “We’re going to give it a fair shake. But we hear the hospitality is great. We understand there are very nice facilities. I’m going into it with open eyes.”
The 10-team, 29-game tournament will begin with pool play at 11 a.m. Saturday on two fields at Richard Wigh Soccer Center. Championship and consolation semifinals begin at 4:40 p.m., followed by the ninth-place game at 5:20 p.m., the fifth- and seventh-place games at 6 p.m., third-place game at 6:20 p.m. and the title game at 6:40 p.m.
Purdue coach Matt Wagner played at the Wigh Center as part of the Midwest Under-19 All-Star team that lost to Ontario.
“I think it’s good,” Wagner said. “The facility is outstanding. Me and all my teammates liked playing there, so when Marcus (Hurley) said he was trying to lock down the facility as a site for the Big Tens, I thought it was a good idea. It’s pretty centrally located, too.”
Hurley, a former Columbus and Indiana University rugby player and now the Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference commissioner, is the person who brought the big event to town.
“It’s not as big a deal within our organization as it is in the community,” Hurley said. “What (the teams are) focused on is winning the championship and getting to nationals.”
If you go
WHAT: Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference Sevens championship
WHEN: 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Richard Wigh Soccer Complex, 1647 Whitney Court, Columbus, near Parkside Elementary School
Penn State and Michigan already have qualified for the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships on May 31 in Philadelphia. But if another Big Ten team wins on Saturday, it also would qualify.
“Indiana is certainly one of the favorites,” Hurley said. “Penn State is always a strong team. They have a bunch of All-Americans, and Michigan is a strong team, as well. University of Illinois is a team that’s stepped up and is making an opportunity to vie for that tournament.”
IU just beat Michigan last weekend to win a tournament at Wisconsin that featured nine of the 10 Big Ten teams that will be in attendance Saturday.
“We’re definitely confident in our abilities,” IU sophomore sweeper Jake Garwood said. “We’re starting to gel together. We had a little break over the winter, but we’re starting to get back in shape. We know what it takes to win, so we’re definitely confident going in there.”
Garwood said IU took only one senior and one junior to Wisconsin, and both got hurt, leaving the Hoosiers to finish with all freshmen and sophomores. He likes that Saturday’s tournament will be a short drive from Bloomington.
“That’s a great advantage for us,” Garwood said. “We had to drive six hours up to Wisconsin on Friday and back six hours (Saturday), so that wasn’t a lot of fun. This is like a home game for us, but we still have to go out and do it, so we’re not looking past that.”
IU is undefeated in three Sevens tournaments this spring. Purdue went 1-3 and finished seventh Saturday at Wisconsin, its first event of the spring.
“It was apparent to me, as well as the rest of my guys, that there are a lot of teams playing good, quality rugby,” Wagner said. “But I’ve seen drastic improvement in my team throughout the season. With Sevens, anything is possible, and I’ve seen a lot of mistakes that are easily correctable.”
While the standard rugby game is 15-on-15, the 7-on-7 game is a smaller, faster version with all backs and flankers. Hurley compares it to 3-on-3 basketball.
The Sevens game features 15-minute games (7-minute halves with a 1-minute halftime). A typical 15s game lasts an hour-and-a-half.
Columbus natives Brad Shaw, who now plays soccer at IU, and Tyra McGrady, who is Hurley’s sister, have been on national Sevens teams.
“It’s all kind of a unique and special animal,” Rooney said. “Sevens is an entertaining game, particularly to the fan that doesn’t understand rugby. Sevens was initially designed to improve skill sets. It’s been around for 30 years, but it’s really catching popularity right now. The fact that Sevens is now an Olympic sport is catching a lot of people’s eyes.”
Nebraska and Northwestern are the only Big Ten schools not entered. IU will play in Pool A with Minnesota, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin. Purdue will play in Pool B with Illinois, Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State.
“The hottest team to watch for is Indiana,” Rooney said. “I’d say if they’re not the most athletic, they’re one of the most athletic teams in the event. The reason that they’re so athletic is that they’re pulling Indiana kids, and the Indiana high school rugby program is one of the best in the country.”