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Edmonton International Sevens rugby rocks St. Albert

Rugby, dodgeball, and volleyball were on tap for the festival's first time in the city.
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The U18 St. Albert girls' team makes a break with the ball in a game against the Strathcona Druids at the YEG International Sevens Rugby event at the St. Albert Rugby Club on Sept. 5, 2021. PRESTON HODGKINGSON/St. Albert Gazette

The 2021 Edmonton International Sevens rugby festival captivated St. Albert this weekend. Riel Park was jammed with people eager to take part in the festivities. The music was blasting, the beer was flowing, and the rugby was intense. 

The event has been around for decades, but event director Karl Sibbons said this is the first time the festival has taken on this kind of form. 

“Originally this event was called ‘Rugby-Fest’ and it has been going on for 53 years,” said Sibbons. “We realized that we needed to shift our focus away from just senior rugby to junior rugby, but also add in some other sporting events.

“We want to grow the event as a multi-sport all-inclusive event over a long weekend.” 

The name of the event might confuse some people. Traditionally the festival took place at Ellerslie Rugby Park in Edmonton, but with that location put up for sale, organizers had to quickly shuffle to find an alternative. Sibbons said the facilities at the St. Albert Rugby Club have made it a perfect place to host this year’s event. 

“It’s a great facility here and there is room to expand ... our intention is to expand to include five-aside soccer, extreme Frisbee, and maybe flag football,” said Sibbons. “This facility, with the soccer field next to it and the Kinsmen grounds on the other side, offers us the opportunity to grow the event that way.

“The decision to move to St. Albert was almost forced on us after the existing rugby facility in Ellerslie was put up for sale. We had to look for a new home and St. Albert offers us some great potential.” 

This is uncharted territory for the rugby club as well. This was the first time they opened up their clubhouse and fields to a private event. Club president Kendra Fiddler said they are ecstatic about this type of partnership and are proud of all the work people put in to make this happen. 

“The tournament organizers have been fantastic,” said Fiddler. “They knew we had the facility to do it and we had their blessing to partner with them ... There was a lot of effort put in, with people going above and beyond their jobs to make it happen.

“We’re thrilled to be hosting, we’re so proud of these fields and crew we have down here ... the teams that come from B.C are shocked when they see [the quality] of our grass and the setup we have here. We are happy to host them and to make those relationships.” 

It wasn’t just rugby that drew crowds. They also hosted dodgeball and volleyball tournaments to try to maximize their reach. Sibbons said the response from teams coming in and participating in all the sports was fantastic. 

 “We got 17 dodgeball teams, 18 volleyball teams, and 42 rugby teams here this weekend from U16 to seniors,” said Sibbons. “We’ve got teams coming from Williams Lake, Nanaimo, Toronto, and all across the Prairies … pre-COVID we would have teams coming from Wales, England, and Ireland as well.” 

The event itself was a success, with balmy weather and food trucks.

“We are so thankful we had the weather [co-operate] and it’s just great for rugby,” said Fiddler. “We’re so grateful that we can put this type of thing on for people safely.” 

Sibbons said they were also happy with how it was received by the community. 

“It’s important to us that people have the best experience,” said Sibbons. “When it comes to putting on any kind of event, what you want is for people to leave here going ‘That was great, I can’t wait for next year.’” 

St. Albert came away with two champions. The U16 boys defeated the Strathcona Druids to take home gold in their age division, while U18 boys took home the gold after defeating the Foothills Lions. 

Fiddler said she thinks this event goes a long way toward making up for the less-than-normal year. 

“All the junior rugby players playing here ... this is their tournament and I’m glad we have been able to offer that for them and actually use the facility,” said Fiddler. “It’s been many, many years since we have had a big event like this down here.”