Scottsdale Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic gives rugby center stage

The Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic is Saturday, Feb. 23 at Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 E Osborn Road. (Submitted photo)

The Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic is Saturday, April 23 at Scottsdale Stadium, 7408 E. Osborn Road. (Submitted photo)

Rugby is a growing sport in the United States and one of the country’s biggest rugby events is experiencing similar growth thanks to a new name and fresh, family-focused fun.

This year, the Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic is headlined by a match-up between Arizona State University’s club rugby team and the Mexican National team on Saturday, April 23 at the Scottsdale Stadium. The two teams in the match will turn heads, as a college will take on a country.

Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic Co-Founder Jason Rose says this may be a first.

“It’s never been tried in the history of American rugby from what we can tell,” he said in a March 2 phone interview.

Many hear Fiesta Bowl and think football, but the local nonprofit has its hands in much more than the college football scene.

‘There’s few better partners’

The Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic carries a new name this year and with the new name comes recognition, given the significance of the Fiesta Bowl not only in the Valley, but across the country.

Jason Rose

Jason Rose

“Well they’re one of the greatest names in American football and they’re an institution in this community,” Mr. Rose said. “They’ve hosted national championships. From an intrigue, from an integrity standpoint, there’s few better partners in the state of Arizona or in all of U.S. football than the Fiesta Bowl to partner with and move an event forward.”

Jenn Jepson, the director of communications for the Fiesta Bowl, says the reason for joining the event was its unifying nature.

“As an Arizona community organization, we wanted to partner with an event in Phoenix that brings everyone together,” Ms. Jepson said in a March 4 phone interview.

Mr. Rose says the tie between the Fiesta Bowl and football should help the event once people realize the similarities between America’s toughest sport and what he calls the toughest sport in the world.

“Our tagline is, ‘even the NFL needs heroes,’ meaning the NFL is tough — rugby’s tougher,” he said. “There ain’t no pads. People who are lamenting not having college football or the NFL to watch every weekend might be intrigued and interested to come check out a rugby match in the offseason.”

Rugby participation has increased nearly 400 percent in the last two decades, according to the event’s website. Mr. Rose says getting people interested in the sport is an important first step.

“We spend a lot of marketing dollars to get people fascinated by the sport,” he said. “In the words of ASU (rugby) coach Gary Lane, this event has become a recruiting tool for him because it’s spreading the word about a nationally-ranked ASU program and it’s an opportunity for his team to play in front of a large crowd — something that a lot of college rugby players don’t get to do.”

Rugby will be back in the Summer Olympics this year. That, combined with an intriguing match-up at Scottsdale Stadium, should mean more growth for rugby in the years to come.

A view of the Mexican National Rugby Team. (Submitted photo)

A view of the Mexican National Rugby Team. (Submitted photo)

‘A Miracle on Grass?’

The marquee match of the Rugby and Balloon Classic will turn heads as a college club takes on a country.

Mr. Rose says the assumed gap between the two teams should make for a potentially-epic battle.

“We’re billing this as the miracle on grass with a question mark,” he said. “Can a college team give away 30 pounds a player and defeat a national team? ASU will be the underdogs so for any fan who might be interested in the event, that is a very compelling storyline for anyone who follows sports.”

While Mr. Rose puts ASU at the same level of the U.S. hockey team at Lake Placid in 1980, ASU Rugby Club President Eric Brown says the match will be closer than one would think.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at the outcome, win or lose, but I definitely believe we have a strong chance,” Mr. Brown said in a March 4 phone interview. “I wouldn’t call it a Miracle on Grass, but then again, we really don’t know.”

The uncertainty exists due to a lack of available film, Mr. Brown says. The match will be played with full 15-member teams on each side. Mr. Brown says he has seen the Mexican National team play in a smaller version of the game called seven’s.

“I believe they’re going to be a bunch of grown men, there are going to be some big guys who are really strong, but overall I believe that we will have better skills, we’ll have better tenacity and hopefully we’ll be younger and fitter,” he said. “But the thing is, they are a national team, they got there for a reason.”

Mr. Brown says the Sun Devils are looking forward to playing in an event on a big stage and they welcome the challenge.

“It’s going to be fun, honestly, it’s going to be a great time,” he said. “This is the most publicized rugby game that a lot of these players will ever play in, so they’re going to be hyped, especially with the crowd in the stands. The more of an epic challenge this becomes, the more they’re going to step up to the plate.”

Converting

Americans love their football and can be resistant to outside ideas that challenge their favorite physical sport.

Even so, Mr. Brown says many of the members of his club rugby team come from a football background, including himself.

“I played football all my life before I graduated high school so I was one of those converts,” he said. “It’s really more changing your mentality and changing the contact area. In football it’s a big hit or a tackle and it’s over. In rugby, it may be a big hit, but that guy running after you is going to feel that impact just as much as you are because you don’t have pads on.”

The lack of pads and helmets are one of the more obvious differences in the game. While scientific research is relatively new when it comes to concussions, rugby has received praise for the head’s lack of involvement in the tackling process.

“There might be a few more broken noses in rugby than you see in the pros, but you don’t see the concussion problems,” Mr. Rose said.

Converting typically happens in college when freshmen are itching for the hitting they enjoyed while playing football in high school, Mr. Brown says.

“We get a lot of football players,” he said. “They come out of high school playing four years in high school or more depending on how long they played and they miss that physicality. Just weight lifting isn’t enough for them.”

Whether it’s starting rugby at a young age or simply getting adults to watch the game, the end goal for both Mr. Rose and Mr. Brown is growing the game.

This year’s Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic should foster growth, as it features a balloon glow event, high school championships and the match-up between ASU and Mexico. Mr. Rose says fans of football should give rugby a chance — they will like what they see.

“Anyone out there who loves watching college football, who loves watching pro football will be amazed at the speed, at the intensity and the toughness of the game,” he said. “There’s just no way not to be impressed.”

Mr. Maskulinski serves as Sports Correspondent for the Scottsdale Independent and can be reached at jmaskulinski@newszap.com

A view of the Yoda balloon that will ascends to a galaxy not so far away next month at the Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic at Scottsdale Stadium. (Submitted photo)

A view of the Yoda balloon that will ascends to a galaxy not so far away next month at the Fiesta Bowl Rugby and Balloon Classic at Scottsdale Stadium. (Submitted photo)

Scottsdale Independent Sports Correspondent Justin Maskulinski can be contacted at jmaskulinski@newszap.com. Follow him on twitter at twitter.com/Maskulinski.

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