With kick off just hours away, it felt right to hear from the players that have been chosen to lead the elite teams at the inaugural Rugby Tens Championship event in Lisbon, Portugal.
Stood in the grounds of Castelo de São Jorge, the players spoke alongside the very trophies that they will be competing for this weekend, the setting sun glinting off the metal surfaces. First up is the Cape Town Wild Dogs’ Pat O’Toole. Playing his club rugby in Major League Rugby with the NOLA Gold, the Irishman and his teammates are coached by Russell “Rusty” Earnshaw and begin their campaign with a matchup against the Serengeti Elephants.
“It is a great group of guys,” O’Toole said.
“It’s people from all over the world and from all walks of life and it has been nice to come together.
“It has been a chilled week, nice and laid back. In training we have just been having fun, throwing the ball about, getting to know how each other play and it has been really enjoyable.”
Wild Dogs Women’s captain is former Canada international Andrea Burk. Coming out of retirement to play in Portugal, the versatile player is playing under fellow Canadian, Robin MacDowell.
A veteran of two Rugby World Cups and multiple HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series events, Burk saying that the competitiveness has started even before the teams have had an opportunity to play one another on the field.
“There is a lot of excitement going into this weekend,” Burk said.
“I have been on the ground for four days, we’ve had the opportunity to come together as a team, but also to come together as four teams through tourism days, at meals and interacting at the hotel.
“It has been really exciting to see all the cultures of each of the teams evolve. There is also the banter happening off-field, so as much as the competition starts on Saturday, it has already started with the tongue-in-cheek comments.
“Everybody is trying to get their edge on the game and those psychological games have already started.
” For others, playing at the Rugby Tens Championship is about more than just rugby. For some players, it will be an opportunity to play rugby again after a long time of being unable to do so as a result of Covid-19.
This is something not lost on Balkans Honey Badgers Womens’ captain Mathrin Simmers, who no doubt has aspirations to play at the delayed Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, and has had limited playing opportunities in her home country as a result of the global pandemic.
“We’re pretty excited,” Simmers said.
“We have had a good couple of sessions bonding with the girls on the field, getting to know each other, how we play and it is great.
“I think it is refreshing, because of Covid everything stopped and now you get to travel and to play again, I think most of the girls haven’t played in a while, so getting the opportunity to play in this tournament is pretty amazing.”
Simmers’ male counterpart is no stranger to professional rugby. Tommy Bell’s career has seen him play for four English Premiership clubs to date. One of several players to have had experience playing 10s rugby, the Englishman is looking forward to seeing how this blend of players combines over the course of the weekend.
“We have a few guys that have played 10s before and a few guys that haven’t,” Bell said.
“It will be interesting for us to find a way and we will see what we think after the first game.
“It was good to train against the Wild Dogs and see what games are going to be like. We have also had a really good blending of the different nationalities, it has been really good to get to know the guys.”
Captaining the Serengeti Elephants, John Poland and his team have spent more time focussing on bonding, as opposed spending lots of time on the training field, hoping that those friendships created off the field will translate into good performances when stepping into competitive action.
“It has been interesting getting to know all the lads from all over the world and a team so fast, getting thrown into it on Monday morning after getting here on Sunday night,” Poland said.
“We have just been doing a lot of bonding off the field to be honest. We have had three, four quick sessions that were about 45 minutes long, focussing on structure and shape, and been trying to get some plays in place, but the main thing is getting to know the lads over coffee.
“I am looking forward to seeing what we can put in place on Saturday and Sunday on the pitch.”
Much of the same can be said for the Elephants women, who have been enjoying getting to know one another and learning from their coaches who come with a wealth of experience.
Skippered by American, Sophie Pyrz, who during her time at college was a standout for Penn State and Life University. This week the scrum-half has thoroughly enjoyed the experience of getting to interact with a host of new players and the challenges that have come with that.
“It has just been good vibes with our team,” Pyrz said.
“Heather (Fisher) and Dan (van Zyl) are a funny combination, they definitely bring out different sides of each other and the way they work with our team is really cool and it is cool to work with such icons.
“I think we are just so excited to go out there and play together. We are all from different places, we speak different languages, but it is cool to come together as one on the field, so I am excited to see what kind of magic we can make happen.”
Former Springboks Women’s Sevens captain Marithy Pienaar is the player entrusted to captain the Rhinos Women in the Rugby Tens Championship this weekend. Having retired in 2018, Pienaar is looking forward to returning to competitive action again and reuniting with some familiar faces in Portugal.
“We have had an awesome week so far and obviously the preparation and the culture and everything that came together was pretty cool,” Pienaar said. We are really excited for tomorrow and obviously we don’t know what’s in store, but we are excited to see (what happens).
“What is great is that some of my friends play on other teams and that is something to look forward to, because I used to play with them and now I will be playing against them. The overall feeling is excitement, it is great how we have just come together as a family to play rugby again.”
But whilst playing high level rugby is all these players’ day-to-day reality, the Rhinos Men’s captain, Harry McNulty, is quick to spare a thought for the players who have travelled from far and wide in order to compete for a trophy.
“I can only imagine when I was 16, being able to go on tour from America and from all over the world to come and play in a rugby tournament,” McNulty said.
“It is quite interesting and it is such a fantastic opportunity for them and it is cool for us to just be involved and for them as the next generation of rugby players coming through.
“For us as pros who have played for a long time, we are hopefully going to be inspiring these kids to keep playing and show them the possibilities and it is a credit to the organisation for setting this whole thing up.”