See the 4th Annual Collegiate Rugby Championships at PPL Park May 31st to June 1st
Special to: Philly College Sports
By Jim DeLorenzo
Four years ago, an Irishman named Donal Walsh brought the first-ever Collegiate Rugby Championship to Philadelphia, his adopted home, and suddenly the possibilities for the growth of Rugby in the United States, not just in colleges but in high schools and with professional teams, seemed very real.
That reality, the 2014 Collegiate Rugby Championships and other special events and championships surrounding the main event, will reveal itself again in Philadelphia, beginning with events on Friday, May 30th and continuing Saturday, May 31st and Sunday, June 1st at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania.
America’s elite talent will be on display in this run-up for the 2016 United States Rugby Sevens Olympic team, which will attempt to qualify for Rio next summer (the first time rugby sevens will be part of the Olympic Games).
The invitational tournament features 20 of the nation’s top college teams, competing in 44 matches across two days as they compete for the coveted Pete Dawkins Trophy. The trophy is named for the Heisman Trophy winner and All-American football star from Army, who was also a standout professional football player – but most notably here, an outstanding rugby player and enthusiast.
Six teams with strong ties to the Greater Philadelphia region – Drexel University, Kutztown University, University of Pennsylvania, Penn State University, Saint Joseph’s University and Temple University – will compete in the tournament, alongside teams from the University of Arizona, UCLA, Dartmouth, Life University, University of Maryland, University of Michigan, Navy, Northeastern University, Notre Dame, University of South Carolina, University of Texas, Virginia Tech and Ohio State University. The reigning champion, the University of California, returns to the 2014 Collegiate Rugby Championships to defend their title.
At the helm is an experienced hand in Walsh. He has been in the United States since 1995, after earning degrees in business from Rockwell College and the Dublin Institute of Technology in his native Ireland (born and raised in County Kildare).
“I got my green card and came to the United States to work at the Olympic Games in Atlanta,” Walsh said in a recent interview. “I worked for the games there for two years, and started my sports career, ending up in Sydney, Australia to work on the preparations for the Olympics there, and then returned to the U.S. to work for the Salt Lake City Olympic Organizing Committee, and eventually earned a job with the International Olympic Committee.
“I learned the skill set of managing a large-scale sports event, and an understanding that there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work that goes into the process, you learn the full spectrum of putting on an event of any magnitude,” continued Walsh. “I ended up doing some work with the Special Olympics World Games in Ireland in 2003, and then did some consulting and readiness planning for the Athens Games, running tests and simulations to make sure everything was ready for the 2004 Summer Olympics.”
Walsh’s work in international athletics continued after the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, when later in 2004 he started doing work for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) at Flushing Meadow, New York. There, he worked in the operations center and coordinated the U.S. Open, a role he continued in for the next four years. Also in that period, Walsh worked at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympic Games, and also worked for FIFA for the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and spent time in Australia for the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
In 2008, Walsh was scheduled to work at the Olympics in Beijing but decided to settle down a little bit after years of international travel – and chose to make his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. At the same time, he began to work for United World Sports, a company dedicated to delivering top-notch international sports events to U.S. audiences.
“I played a lot of rugby in my life, and was a pretty accomplished player, but I was also interested in bringing rugby to a larger audience and helping get it established on a larger-scale in the United States,” Walsh said. “In 2007, United World Sports had bought the rights to Rugby Sevens, and I was brought on board as director of operations and development, working for them from Philadelphia.
“Philadelphia is such a great sports city, I’ve lived here for 10 years now, it has a great sports infrastructure both in the collegiate level and the professional level, a great location, and a number of Irish expatriates as well as international business community members who understand and love the game of rugby,” noted Walsh.
“Rugby got back into the Olympics in 2009, and with United World Sports, we were able to start building an audience and a following for Rugby Sevens,” Walsh said. “NBC Sports and United World Sports teamed up to bring the USA Sevens Rugby Tournament to Las Vegas, bringing in teams from 16 nations for a three-day tournament that has become the largest rugby tournament in North America each year.
“But we felt we needed something that was uniquely American, too, to help educate the U.S. about Rugby Sevens and the Olympic Rugby Sevens,” explained Walsh. “Rugby has been a traditional, well-established sport on most of the nation’s college campuses for generations, and even if someone doesn’t understand the sport, they understand the rivalry and will support their alma mater, which then draws the college team’s fans to an event like ours. That point of view has turned out to be very accurate and successful for us with the Collegiate Rugby Championship.”
In addition to the 20 teams competing in 44 matches over two days at PPL Park later this month, the weekend of May 30thfeatures a number of related events bringing thousands of rugby players to Philadelphia from around the country.
“Once we started, we began to hear from other rugby players and teams that they wanted to be in Philadelphia to be part of a national event,” Walsh said. “So we will have a number of the nation’s top collegiate women’s rugby teams competing in a tournament that is hosted by Neumann University (in Aston, Pennsylvania) with the championship finals in PPL Park. We will also have a national small college rugby tournament, also hosted by Neumann that features teams including Duke and Middlebury, with their championships game also to be played in PPL Park. And there will be both a boy’s and a girl’s high school rugby tournament, hosted at the University of Pennsylvania, with the finals at PPL Park.
“In addition, we will have the Super Sevens Exhibition, to get the fans involved and let them in on the game as we continue to move Rugby Sevens forward in the U.S., and hopefully, gain a foothold for a professional league in the not-to-distant future.”
The current USA Rugby Sevens National team includes 13 full-time players who have competed in the CRC tournament within the past three years. Rugby Sevens features seven players per team playing on the same size pitch as a 15s match and offers non-stop action where speed, high scoring and athleticism dominate the competition. The format allows for constant entertainment with each match split into two seven-minute halves and a new high-energy match starting about every 20 minutes.