by John Arthur
Writer for and on behalf of the City of Glendale
Glendale’s Infinity Park, home to the city’s Raptors and Merlins rugby teams, has a longstanding history of positively engaging local communities. In the late-August days leading to Infinity Park’s annual RugbyTown Sevens tournament, that tradition of outreach was further strengthened. With organizational help from Infinity Park hosts, Armed Forces teams participating in the tournament paid visits to Children’s Hospital Colorado, putting smiles on faces young and old, and demonstrating the alignment of outreach and inclusion indicative of rugby’s values and those of military service.
Founded in 1908, Children’s Hospital Colorado has been providing outstanding pediatric care for over a century. The private, not-for-profit provider is affiliated with the University of Colorado School of Medicine, and is ranked as a best national children’s hospital by U.S. News & World Report. With both national and international Armed Forces teams visiting in the week leading up to the RugbyTown Sevens tournament, patients and their families experienced firsthand the compassion and character definitive of rugby athletes.
Dacoda Worth, a rookie playing for the Army Rugby 7s team, reflected on his first appearance at the tournament, and in participating in community outreach: “Through rugby, and the military in general, the best feeling is giving back. That’s what we’re doing every day through our service, and giving back here, visiting these kids, as a rugby player and a serviceman is really rewarding.”
RugbyTown Sevens, an annual Glendale tournament attracting teams from across the globe and producing competition at the highest level, served as backdrop for the visits to Children’s Hospital. Representatives from the U.S. Marines, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard teams, as well as from the British Royal Air Force participated in the visits.
Rob Bell, making his second appearance at the RugbyTown tournament with the Royal Air Force team, quipped that the hospital visit was an important aspect of the experience, and that there was more to the tournament, and rugby, than just the competition: “If you look at rugby in America, it’s grown and grown. With the military teams all coming to the hospital and interacting with the kids, it sends a really positive message. We’re here to engage with the local community — not just to play. It’s very important.” Bell went on to note the similarities between the values inherent in rugby as a sport and those of military service: “Rugby aligns with military values: respect, integrity, service, friendship, ethics, and camaraderie. There’s a massive crossover with the values of rugby. Outreach like this helps us demonstrate that to the public in a way that’s meaningful.”
Rugby’s character-driven ethos, explained by Bell, assures there is more to the sport than competition. But in addition to the military team visits, the weekend did see a great deal of high-level Sevens play. Newcomers to the tournament, Fiji SAVU Water, also known as the Viti Barbarians, walked away overall tournament champions, winners of the RT7s Cup, and with the $10,000 tournament purse that title guaranteed. Members of the visiting Fijian team had previously participated on the gold-medal-winning Fiji national team at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Another fan favorite, the U.S. Army team won the military championship in decisive form, earning that distinction for the fifth year running. Competing for the first time under the new Merlins moniker, the hometown team struggled. Moving forward from the tournament, team focus shifted to the then upcoming 15s season, which kicked off the first weekend of September. Notably, the home opener underscored celebrations of Infinity Park’s 10th anniversary as a Glendale focal point.
The excitement of world-class competition didn’t take away from the importance of the team visits to Children’s Hospital, however. Eric Geckas, playing for the U.S. Coast Guard team in his fourth appearance at the tournament, likened the feelings of military service and community outreach to rugby play: “Coast Guard boat crews and flight crews operate in a lot of the same ways the rugby team does on the field. We joined out of pride. To serve. Combining those feelings with sport, and then with our ability to improve the lives of people in a difficult situation — that’s what it’s all about.” Sentiments like Geckas’ were shared by all of the participating team members and coaches.
Head coach of the All-Navy 7s team, Koma Gandy Fischbein described the hospital visit as an emissary of the sport: “We recognize and embrace that we are both ambassadors of the U.S. Navy and the sport of rugby. We welcomed the opportunity to inspire, and be inspired by, these brave children and their families. Outreach is an essential part of being a whole athlete; within the rugby community and especially the Armed Forces, giving back and making an impact is part of who we are. It’s a part of why we serve and why we play this sport.” As the compassion and character embodied by both rugby players and military service members was shown in August, it seems likely the sport has at least a few new young fans.