By Josh Campbell
Rugby was the passport for a group of Americans visiting a country full of mystery and intrigue this February.
The setting was the first IRB (International Rugby Board) sanctioned sevens rugby tournament held in the capitol of Castro’s Cuba — picturesque Havana.
The team, Atlantis, was a US selection side made up of 14 Americans (10 players, two coaches, one manager and one athletic trainer) and one Canadian (player brought for possible diplomatic relation skills).
The tournament, held on Feb 27 and 28 and set-up by Canadian rugby philanthropist Karl Fix, featured some of North and South American rugby’s finest.
Opening ceremonies kicked off in fine fashion with 12 teams representing seven countries flying their flags under the shadows of Eduardo Saborit Stadium, a pre-revolution dog track turned sports arena (it seems people weren’t the only species freed after the revolution — dogs can be seen throughout Havana, enjoying their reproductive freedoms).
Atlantis, led by longtime US national sevens men’s and women’s rugby coach Emil Signes*, played three games on the first day of the tournament posting three shut-out wins versus two Cuban national development teams and the Mexican National team. Former US National Sevens player Marcus Respes and powerful young Texan thoroughbred Kelly Kolberg led the scoring.
Other teams that looked strong on that day were the first Cuban national team and Canadian contingent
Dog River Howlers. It was imminent that Atlantis would scrum against both of these teams the next day.
On Sunday Atlantis kicked off to the Venezuelan team. The Venezuelans pressed early and were encroaching the try line when Kolberg tattooed the ball carrier and won the ball, leading to an Atlantis try and eventual win.
The next game saw Atlantis take on the Cuban national team backed by the bells, horns and whistles of their fervent fans.
In what can only be described as near flawless game, Atlantis blanked a very impressive Cuban side 15-nil. Later on the Cuban team, only in its infancy, beat an IRB caliber Mexican team for third place, proving they are ready to compete on the international rugby stage with less than 10 years experience.
This placed Atlantis in the final against the Dog River Howlers of Canada. It turned out to be a dog’s day as the Howlers won 35-5, Respes scoring Atlantis’ lonely try. (It was later noted that Feb 28 was a full moon giving an unfair advantage to the Howler team.)
As with all battles in rugby, the Cuba tournament ended in clubhouse fashion where teams traded songs, beers and jerseys.
Atlantis players quickly gravitated to many of the Cuban players they had befriended that week (Atlantis players showed up three days previous to the tournament seizing opportunities to train and build relationships with the Cubans).
Smiles, hugs and gifts revealed how much the two sides had overcome national biases and developed strong bonds.
“I have been all around the world playing rugby and this has been my best experience yet,” said Kolberg, sitting beside his new rugby chum Pablo from Guatanemo province. “These people have changed my view on Cubans.”
Atlantis’ trip to Cuba proved to be another testimony to the power of sport to reach across cultural lines. Well done men!
*Emil Signes pioneered the first international rugby tournament in Cuba 10 years earlier when he took a US team to play against some Cuban development teams. For Signes, the son of a Cuban mother, seeing the improvement of Cuban rugby and visiting family members were definite highlights of the trip.
The members of Atlantis team wish to thank head coach Signes, assistant coach Chris Ryan, manager Dave McPhail and athletic trainer Sara Sall for their support throughout the trip. The team would also like to thank team captain John Babb for his leadership and acknowledge player Thaddeus Hill, former US Sevens player who was on his 12th Atlantis tour.
USA Team –
Josh Campbell. Age 30. 6’1, 210. Born Innisfall, AB, Canada. Regina Rogues. Uganda: national team trial match.
Al Christian. Age 31. 5’6, 178. Born Dallas, TX. At Large. Texas and West Select. Represented Atlantis 7 times.
Matt Hayes. Age 23. 6’1, 205. Born Tomball, TX, USA. Houston Athletic Rugby Club. Texas Select. Represented Atlantis twice.
Thaddeus Hill. Age 42. 5’8, 160. Born Fort Worth, TX, USA. Fort Worth Rugby Club. Texas and West Select, USA Sevens. Represented Atlantis 12 times.
Kelly Kolberg. Age 24. 5’10, 210. Born Dallas, TX, USA. Dallas Rugby Club. West Select, USA Under 19.
Ryan Johnson. Age 28. 5’11, 175. Born Pocahontas, IA., USA. Wilmington Rugby Club. Mid-Atlantic Select.
Rick Medina. Age 40. 5’9, 170 Born El Paso, TX, USA. Austin Rugby Club, Texas and West Select, Team America (US Over 35), Spain. Represented Atlantis twice.
Aron Pillard. Age 27. 5’10,185. Born Woodstock, VA, USA. Wilmington Rugby Club. Mid-Atlantic Select.
Marcus Respes. Age 31. 6’2 225. Born Bristol, PA. Media Rugby Club. East Penn and Mid-Atlantic Select, USA Sevens.
Kendrick Scott. Age 20. 6’4, 200. Born Dallas, TX. Kansas City Blues Rugby Club. West Collegiate All Stars.