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USA Sevens rugby tournament ready to scrum in Las Vegas

Sunday’s Super Bowl was the most-watched television show in U.S. history, attracting more than 106 million viewers.

But the popularity of the NFL’s title game still pales in comparison to soccer’s World Cup, the Olympic Games and the Rugby World Cup — which each reportedly attracts a worldwide audience in the billions.

While rugby’s global appeal might come as a surprise to Americans — who remain loyal to football, basketball, baseball and hockey — the sport is on the rise. And this weekend, fans will get a chance to see what all the fuss is about at the USA Sevens International Rugby Tournament in Las Vegas.

Teams from 16 countries will compete in 44 matches on Saturday and Sunday at Sam Boyd Stadium in the fourth leg of the IRB Sevens World Series.

Rugby sevens, which will become an Olympic sport in 2016 at the Rio de Janeiro Games, is a fast-paced game featuring seven players on each team. Each match is split into two seven-minute halves, with a new match starting about every 20 minutes.

New Zealand claimed eight of the first 10 World Series titles and leads the pack again this season after winning the first two events at Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and George, South Africa.

Fiji, the 2005-06 Series champion, is in second place after winning Saturday in Wellington, New Zealand, where rugby rules — the tournament sold more than 70,000 seats in less than four minutes, said tournament director Dan Lyle, the former U.S. rugby team captain.

Rugby-mad Samoa is in third place, and England is in fourth. Other countries competing this weekend, along with the United States, are South Africa, Argentina, Wales, Australia, Kenya, Canada, France, Guyana, Scotland, Chile and Japan.

Each team has its ardent supporters, and many will be in Las Vegas for this weekend’s festivities.

Kenya, known as home to the world’s greatest long-distance runners, surprisingly follows its team with a national fervor, Lyle said, adding he expects several thousand Kenyans from Dallas and Los Angeles to be here.

Lyle expects several thousand Polynesian fans to attend the two-day event to support Fiji and Samoa, two of the tournament favorites.

Several NFL players, including Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, also are expected to attend to support Samoa. Lyle said several celebrities will attend, including actors Ben Affleck, Mark Wahlberg and Matt Damon, who portrayed former South African rugby star Francois Pienaar in last year’s film, "Invictus."

"Everyone wants to come all of a sudden, and it’s in Vegas, which is always good for the event," Lyle said.

Las Vegas is the third U.S. city to host the event, following in the footsteps of Los Angeles and San Diego. The series shifts to Hong Kong in March and Australia in April before wrapping up in England and Scotland in May.

Last year’s event in San Diego attracted nearly 37,000 to Petco Park, and Lyle hopes the move to Las Vegas will result in increased attendance. The city, which will host the event for at least three years, was chosen over Phoenix, San Francisco and Orlando, Fla.

"We’ve had a seven-to-10 fold increase in fan interest. As of last week, we were 25 percent ahead of schedule than we were in San Diego last year," Lyle said. "San Diego was a Southern California event with a sprinkling of international people. Las Vegas is truly an international event, where people can fly here from other parts of the world and know it’s going to be a party."

Lyle hopes the USA Sevens can become an annual fixture in Las Vegas, much like the National Finals Rodeo. He’s also hoping to see sellout crowds like the events in New Zealand, Dubai and Hong Kong, where the three-day, 24-team tourney has been held since the 1960s and usually sells out 120,000 tickets.

U.S. coach Al Caravelli said Fiji, New Zealand, England and Samoa are the top four teams playing this weekend while "sleeper” teams would be the United States and South Africa.

Sparked by its home crowd, the United States, which finished 2009 ranked an all-time best 11th in the world, made a run to last year’s tournament semifinals, its best finish of the season.

"I was standing on one of the benches and when the crowd chanted ‘U-S-A,’ I felt the bench vibrating," Caravelli said. "There were only about 16,000 people, but it was amazing. It energized the team and really spring-boarded them to the semifinals.

"The crowd can really push you. If we can play to our potential and just relish the crowd instead of getting nervous, I think we’ll do well."

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354.

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