United States of America
And here I was thinking the Rugby Sevens was all about sport. Maybe elsewhere on the planet, but this is Vegas, baby, and the party trumps play. Men in fluoro tutus and women in eeny-weeny stars-and-stripes bikinis shuffle through the turnstiles. Superheroes rub shoulders with jelly-bean men in full-body Lycra, a Statue of Liberty queues behind an Egyptian sphinx, and a pregnant nun waddles past carrying a tray full of beer.
“It’s like fantasy land, an escape from reality,” says South African Peter Busse, as he stands with a mate outside the entrance to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas, wearing a bright green mohawk wig and knocking back a can of beer. It doesn’t matter that it’s not quite midday.
Inside, the American national anthem plays to a hushed crowd, an Air Force flyover blasts over the stadium and the field erupts in fireworks. Sixteen nations from around the world have descended on Vegas for three days of brute contest. At stake is a berth at the Olympics in Rio, when rugby will return to the Games for the first time since 1924 (the top four teams at the end of the World Series season automatically qualify).
The Sevens is kind of like the Twenty20 of rugby. Based on rugby union, but with half the number of players (seven instead of 15), the game consists of two seven-minute halves and is lightning fast. In Vegas competition is hot and so is the weather. It’s winter but it is unseasonably steamy and feels like the sun is radiating off the Nevada mountains, which can be glimpsed through the open end of the stadium. No wonder the beer is flowing so freely.
On the concourse, a group of burly Samoan Americans has set up a three-litre keg of beer on a rubbish bin and has clearly had a few refills. One is dressed as a sheikh, another stands out in a high-vis vest adorned with a necklace of Christmas baubles and boobs. “The balls are Samoan, the titties are white,” he says, cracking up, clearly enjoying the gag. “We’re trying to film The Hangover Part 4.”
In the stands, there are many others who, if not nursing hangovers now, soon will be. “It’s unreal, sucking the life out of me,” confides one Aussie, who’s been playing the Vegas scene hard. Surprisingly, the Aussie contingent is quite small and relatively subdued. I find a young bunch of blokes wearing green and gold sitting on the back bleachers behind a man in khaki sporting a Bindi Irwin wig. They’re eating obligatory fried chicken and fries and have used the rugby as an excuse to come to Vegas. “It’s what you’d expect, just loose,” one of the blokes tells me as his “mad rugby mate” jumps to his feet yelling: “Smack him!” It’s the first match of day two – the USA versus South Africa – and the crowd, heavily weighted towards the home-side, is pumped.
Soon the Aussies take to the field, executing a blistering 26-nil lead over Scotland by half time. Brawn and bravado are replaced by bronzer and ballet kicks as the Sweethearts cheerleaders run onto the field, all hot pants, flicking hair and cute-as-pie waves. Play resumes and a lone bagpiper blurts a mournful tune from under a distant light tower, a woman wrapped in an Australian flag watches intently, while nearby a Scot in a kilt gesticulates wildly as a Loch Ness Monster bounces at his groin. There’s also a cow. A cow with a sign that reads “eat more chicken”. Before I have time to contemplate what that’s all about, it’s all over. Australia has annihilated Scotland 40-14 and ‘Down Under’ is blaring from the speakers.
That performance deserves a drink. Back on the concourse I bump into a Canadian–American wearing tight, red maple-leaf jocks paired with a sequined stars-and-stripes jacket with tasselled sleeves. Ardy Farhangdoost is part of an official rugby touring group and hasn’t missed a Vegas tournament since the Rugby Sevens first started playing here five years ago. He’s become something of a mascot for the sport, recognised by fans as ‘Canadian Speedo Man’.
“I have no shame and I just love the game, the atmosphere, the costumes,” he says. “I know with the fans the more obnoxious or ridiculous [my costume], the more it stands out.” Today Noah and his ark of animals are giving him a run for his money. They’ve commandeered an area opposite one of the stadium doors and have formed a human, or rather an animal, pyramid. Nearby, an eagle clutches a golden trophy – symbolising the host nation’s hopes for the tournament.
“One of the greatest parts about rugby fans is that they’re uninhibited, no judgement, it’s a very accepting culture,” says Noah, aka Johnny Warner. Quite profound coming from a man who looks like he’s wearing road kill for underpants.
These fans make the Ashes Barmy Army look coy. This is truly an event that transcends sport. And it’s so quintessentially Vegas – loud, proud and completely gratuitous. In the car park, scores of stretch limousines line up to take the punters home – most of them no doubt staying on the famous Strip. Few will get much sleep, and they’ll be back to do it all over again tomorrow.
On the final day, a crowd of more than 25,000 crams the stadium to watch the final between the Kiwis and Fiji. (For the record Australia came a respectable fifth, taking home the consolation Plate.) Pale blue flags billow over spectators, and the stands throb to a soundtrack of chanting and drumming.
Turns out I’m sitting among the Fijian supporters (who knew there was such a large population of Fijians in the USA?). By halftime Fiji has scored 21 and New Zealand has yet to hit the scoreboard. The crowd has been whipped into a fervour and a commotion of cheers and applause breaks out a few rows in front of me. A woman is sculling beer from her shoe, sufficiently sloshed that she doesn’t mind the foot-funk on her brew.
Two spectators – including a woman in a pink tutu – leap onto the field and a game of cat and mouse ensues as security guards chase them around in a scene reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch that only serves to further enliven the crowd. A portly guard seizes his moment, throwing himself on the male invader, who is at once flattened and rendered immobile. The tutu woman continues to flounce around the field until two guards take her down. The man is cuffed and the woman is escorted off in a fireman’s lift, all the while the crowd chants: “Let them go! Let them go!”
When the final whistle blows, New Zealand has salvaged some dignity but goes down to the Fijian victors 35-19. A trickle of spectators breaches security, taking to the field. There’s a polite order to keep off the ground, but it’s too late. The floodgates have opened and a tide of fans pours onto the turf. This is Sin City and rules are made for breaking. I spot Ardy among the sea of people, running about in his jocks with a cape rippling behind him, and am reminded of something Noah said the previous day.
“Saturday shall be-eth a rugby day. And we’ll be here for evil Sunday.”
United Airlines flies to Las Vegas via Los Angeles from about AU$1400 return.
The Delano is a swanky hotel on the Mandalay Bay end of the Strip and overlooks Luxor Hotel and Casino, the iconic shimmering pyramid and Sphinx that make up Vegas’s famous skyline. Rooms start at about AU$260 a night.
The 2015/16 HSBC Sevens World Series will see 10 tournaments held around the world, with Las Vegas hosting round five from 4–6 March. The other host cities are Dubai, Cape Town, Wellington, Sydney, Vancouver, Hong Kong, Singapore, Paris and London.
For more information on visiting Las Vegas visit the official website.
Words Catherine Best
Photos Catherine Best