Weekend rugby festival opens with historic wheelchair event

Allen Wallace photos.

Columbia’s reputation as a great host for sporting events continues to grow, whether those events are as familiar as March Madness or as unusual as Quidditch, or even the first of their kind.

This weekend, the eyes of rugby fans around the world will be on South Carolina’s capital, as the city welcomes the inaugural Sport Performance Tracking Carolina 9s Rugby League Festival.

This event is the largest Rugby 9s festival in the United States and is expected to draw around 1,000 attendees from all over the world in addition to local fans.

Friday night at Seven Oaks Park, the festival made history with the Carolina Wheelchair Rugby League Exhibition Game, the first match of its kind to be played on American soil.

“This is the first attempt on U.S. soil, right here in Columbia, South Carolina,” said Andy Lucas, who led the effort to organize the festival. Lucas recruited players from Carolina Wheelchair Basketball to try rugby in their basketball offseason, and the results Friday night were promising. Most of the participants were new to the sport, but with the help of coaches and experts including a member of Scotland’s national wheelchair rugby team, they picked it up fast.

The festival’s grand finale is set for Saturday at Saluda Shoals Park, with more than two dozen men’s and women’s teams playing multiple games on six fields throughout the day.

“SPT Carolina 9s is excited to bring the sport of Rugby League to Columbia,” said Grayson Gaines, event director for the festival. “Not only is this the first time playing Rugby League in the Carolinas, but this festival also showcases Women’s Rugby League and introduces Wheelchair Rugby League to the U.S. I think this kind of shakes up the perception people may have about rugby and shows it’s truly a sport for everyone.”

There will be plenty happening to make Saturday a great experience for fans, with local beer from Craft and Draft, food and ice cream trucks, an inflatable pool to cool off in, music, vendors, chances to win prizes and more. Advanced knowledge of rugby is not needed.

“This version of rugby, as a fan you can figure it out literally in 5-10 minutes,” Lucas said. He added that despite the perception of the sport as especially violent, its injury rate is far lower than football. “It’s all about using the right tackling techniques and not using your head as a weapon.”

“Rugby is such a growing sport and this event in particular has a lot of unique elements to it,” said Experience Columbia SC Sports Sales Manager Jarrett Dowling. “I hope this festival can open the door to Columbia hosting more rugby events in the area while also educating the community on the sport. We’re so excited to work with SPT Carolina 9s and showcase Columbia on an international stage.”

More information on the festival and future rugby events is available at www.carolina9s.com.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, Columbia, Richland County