Al Lang Stadium has already transformed from a picturesque spring training baseball venue to a soccer pitch that is home to the Tampa Bay Rowdies. And this weekend, Al Lang will turn into a rugby field that will host the Halloween Rugby 7s Elite Invitational.
Eight teams, four considered world-class teams and four considered all-stars, will play a series of matches Saturday and Sunday. The world-class teams will play for a $10,000 prize.
The tournament is more than just an exhibition to introduce local fans to rugby. The sport has been added to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the first time it has been an Olympic sport since 1924.
The world-class teams — the USA Eagles, USA Falcons, Canada Maple Leafs and Argentina Rugby — will treat the tournament as preparation for a forthcoming international tour and the Olympics. Players on the all-star teams, which are from New York, Ohio, Denver and Utah, will try to impress U.S. national team coach Mike Friday, who will attend the matches.
Rugby ended up at Al Lang Stadium when American Rugby 7s was approached by Bill Edwards, owner of the Rowdies, about holding an event in St. Petersburg.
Bill Edwards Presents Inc. "made it clear that they wanted to bring extreme sports to St. Petersburg," said American Rugby 7s president and CEO Karyne Bazzano. "We were put in contact through a mutual relationship and it ended up being perfect timing. The 7s athletes are getting ready to play in the international circuit. This will be like a warmup for their high performance training."
Bazzano realizes that St. Petersburg is not the rugby capital of the world. In fact, most locals will likely need a crash course on the sport if they plan to follow it this weekend.
Basically, there are seven players on each side and games only last 15 minutes — seven minutes in one direction, seven in the other with a one-minute halftime.
Teams get five points for a try (think touchdown) and two points for a conversion (think drop kick-style field goal). The game starts with a scrum, when three forwards from each team form a circle, then fight like crazy to kick the ball out of one end. There can also be a scrum after penalties.
The players do not wear pads, and a combination of size and speed is desirable for elite players. Bazzano said two of the best American players currently in the sport will be at this tournament. Carlin Isles, a former track athlete, is considered the "Fastest Man in Rugby." Perry Baker, who is from Daytona Beach, is one of the best players on the U.S. national team. They will play for the USA Falcons.
There will be 12 pool-play games Saturday from 1 to 6 p.m. On Sunday, the semifinals and finals in different categories will be played from noon to 6 p.m.
Aside from rugby, there will also be bands playing between games as well as various contests. Bazzano said she expects most attendees to be clueless about the sport, but she believes once they see it they will be hooked.
"What we're hoping is to bring in a crowd that is curious about the sport," Bazzano said. "I refer to rugby as the best sport people don't know about. It's the best sport people aren't attending. They are the nicest guys people aren't meeting. These guys all have full-time jobs they have to work into their schedules.
"I've said this before: I'll give people their money back if they don't have a good time. If you don't love the game, then you'll love the music. If you don't love the music, then you'll love the other stuff going on."