Folau Niua, arguably the greatest player in United States men’s national team history, took the first-ever kickoff. Canadian Olympian Jared Douglas then hoisted Devereaux Ferris in the air, tapping Niua’s kick in the direction of Shane Moore, who froze Gavan D’Amore-Morrison in a phone booth before blazing up the right touchline en route to the first-ever try.
Earning the first scribble in the annals for the women was Brazilian Olympian Izzy Cerullo, who took the opening kickoff for the Loggerheads. Kristen Thomas, the American Olympian, recorded the first try for the Headliners.
The Loonies went on to win the first women’s title and the Experts the men’s. Delaney Aikens was named MVP for her two-try performance in the women’s championship match. Expert Logan Tago took the men’s honor, his bulldozing heroics forcing overtime at the end of regulation in the final.
These are just some of the firsts etched into the cave drawings of Premier Rugby Sevens. Launching with its nationally-televised Inaugural Championship at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tennessee on Oct. 9, 2021, PR7s simultaneously became the world’s first-ever pro sevens league and the first-ever professional women’s rugby competition, of any kind, in North America.
Though 140 athletes and 20 coaches arrived the week of the Inaugural Championship to form six men’s and four women’s teams, for all intents and purposes, the league got its physical start weeks earlier at the Open Trial.
Dreamt up during lockdown, the Inaugural Championship was largely planned and executed over Zoom calls and emails in the midst of a global pandemic. The first time players and coaches gathered around some rugby balls on a patch of grass in the act of starting the world’s first pro 7s league, it was at the former site of Vance Middle School in Memphis in late summer.
The initial steps towards PR7s’ first full season in 2022 will follow the same path, with two Open Trials set for Feb. 20 in Charlotte, North Carolina at the Charlotte Rugby Club and again on March 6 in San Clemente, California at Vista Hermosa Sports Park. Under the direction of two former national team coaches — general manager Mike Tolkin and newly-minted head of scouting Richie Walker — PR7s has an experienced pair of fishermen casting a wide net.
Tolkin has been with the league from the beginning, masterfully crafting competitive lineups for that inaugural competition essentially out of thin air. With more than 30 years of coaching experience, including four national championships, four years with the national team as an assistant, and a World Cup cycle as the head coach, few people are better positioned to identify American talent than Tolkin.
One man who could make the argument is Walker. He led the Seattle Seawolves to the 2019 Major League Rugby championship, and he’s won numerous grassroots national championships with both men’s and women’s clubs. He also coached the United States women’s national team at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the 2018 Rugby World Cup Sevens in San Francisco, and the girls junior national team at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, China. Most recently, he served as an assistant coach for the Japanese women at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
In the quest to unearth the next Naya Tapper or Perry Baker, already, PR7s has put forward some credible candidates. Like Tago, who’s scored two tries in 19 matches as a rookie for the national team on the HSBC Sevens World Series. And Sarah Levy, who has notched three tries in 10 matches during her debut campaign.
Both leapt to the sevens national team after standout performances in Memphis and could be categorized as two of Tolkin’s headline finds from year one.
Just six weeks after playing in the first-ever women’s pro 7s league, Levy debuted for the world-famous touring side, Barbarians FC, in their 60-5 defeat of South Africa. Taking it in at hallowed Twickenham Stadium was the largest crowd to ever watch a women’s rugby match — a world-record-setting 29,581. Levy, whose grandfather captained those same Barbarians against South Africa in 1939, scored three tries.
While Levy and Tago serve as proof of the concept that PR7s is a platform to the national teams and ultimately the Olympics, others serve as examples of using the Open Trials to springboard into the pros. Expert Royaal Jones, Headliner Terrell Johnson, Loggerhead Ethan Scott, Local Jimmy Haley, and Loonies Matt Drzewiecki, Glory Woolley and Amanda Hull were all plucked from the Open Trials to play in the Inaugural Championship.
PR7s is about getting America and the world to fall in love with rugby sevens, the most electrifying sport on the planet. Critical to the mission is finding electrifying athletes to put the game on full display, and developing them to be good enough to represent their country at the highest level.
That process, much like the 2022 season, starts with the Open Trials. And soon.
By Pat Clifton