The Nashville Grizzlies Rugby Football Club returned home from the Sixth Biannual Mark Bingham Cup International Rugby competition as recipients of the first ever Ben Cohen Stand Up Foundation Award for Outstanding Team Sportsmanship in the game of rugby. The 20 man Nashville team competed in the top division of tournament play in Manchester, England, including five matches over three days, June 1-3.
Overall the team finished 15th out of 38 teams competing from Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, France, Ireland, Scotland, The Netherlands and the U.S. Luck of the draw matched up the Grizzlies against perennial powerhouses NYC's Gotham Knights A side, Manchester's Village Spartans A side, Washing D.C. Renegades B side, Sydney Convicts B side and a combined team in the semi final that included players from Atlanta Bucks and Philadelphia Griffons.
The Grizzlies' team in Manchester boasted Bingham veterans and newbies, including Luke Anderson, Jimmy Arredondo, John Bledsoe, Joey Brakefield, Glen Cook, Alan Couch, Jamie Day, Jeremy Dykes, Jon Glassmeyer, Thomas Hormby, Brandon Kahna, Michael Kiggins, John Lee, Alex Mustafa, John Purdom, Todd Shelton, Marquise Thomas, Daniel Vincent, Vince Vogelsang and Josh Wall. Joey Bushkotter, Van Pond, Scott Ridgway and Nick Bettress provided sideline and logistical support so the players could stay focused on the games.
Rugby Union teams may have up to 25 players on a roster for the tournament. The extra players provide rest or injury relief for the 15 players active on the field during play. Teams designated as an A or B side are those that brought enough qualified players and supporters to field more than one full team. Several teams with less than 15 on their initial roster combined to field a team with sufficient subs to continue through at least five matches.
Wall, team captain, scored in the first match versus Renegades but was sidelined with an injury for the rest of day. Kahna earned Man of the Match for his exceptional work tackling and kicking as Fullback.
Arredondo stepped in as captain for the matchup with the home team Manchester Spartans in the afternoon. Mustafa played at the top of his game until he was taken out of the tournament by a knee injury. Lee earned Man of the Match for his aggressive work in the rucks and strategic thinking in support of the back line on defense.
The second day kicked off again at 9 a.m. against NYC Gotham A. Despite repeated valiant efforts at the NYC try (goal) line, the Grizzlies held Gotham again and again with remarkable tackling, defense and a scrum that beat every team played during the tournament. Kiggins earned Man of the Match for the brutal tackles he served up to Gotham as well as his ready ability to play well in any position the team needed him.
In the 1 p.m. quarter-finals the Grizzlies kicked off against The Convicts B side, who went on to win the Bingham Plate division while their A side took home the top prize. Wall returned as captain and the Grizzlies led charge after charge deep into Convicts territory. Unfortunately, Brakefield was taken out of the tournament with an injury following an especially heroic open field tackle. Though usually playing forward, Vogelsang earned Man of the Match honors for jumping into Wall's position as inside center with the back line. His size, speed and experienced showed as the Convicts hit a wall of Grizzlies led by Vogelsang again and again. This was Vogelsang's third Bingham Cup with the Grizzlies. Though he announced his intention to retire from active play after the tournament, the team hopes it will not really be his last.
Sunday morning at 9:50 a.m., amidst a cold, driving rain, the Grizzlies met the combined Bucks/Griffons in the semi-finals for the Bingham Shield. Lee was taken out of the game during a big tackle in the last five minutes that stopped an offensive drive. Scrum half Todd Shelton earned Man of the Match for his quick work coming out of scrums and repeated tackles of his opposite number.
The Bucks/Griffons went on to beat Chicago for the shield. Manchester A took the Bowl in the second tier championship. Straffe Ketten, the Wild Men from Brussels, took home the Hoagland Cup, placing first in the second-16 competition and Kings Cross B took home the Hoagland Vase for winning tier two of this new competition division.
All injured Grizzlies are on the mend.
Tournament hosts Village Spartans choreographed a memorable fours days for more than 1,500 players and supporters. The official hotel was within easy walking distance of all the off-field events and Manchester's festive Gay district along Canal street. The opening ceremony was held in the Hogwarts-like Great Hall of the massive Victorian City Hall. The Lord Mayor and her spouse, the Lady Mayoress, welcomed the packed room to huge applause. Alice Hoagland, mother of 9/11 Flight 91 Hero Mark Bingham and former S.F. Fog and USC Rugby player, inspired everyone with her reflections on her son's experiences as a gay athlete and all that the tournament has accomplished for Gay men around the world in his memory.
The Grizzlies awarded Man of the Tournament honors to team president Jamie Day for his leadership and strength off and on the field in every minute of all five matches.
The equally ornate Palace Hotel hosted the closing dinner and ceremonies that included former International Rugby superstars Ben Cohen and Gareth Thomas. Since he became the first Rugby World Cup Champion to go public about his sexual identity Thomas has used his name recognition in the sporting world to encourage and support GLBT youth and adults involvement in team sports.
"Being on the stage with Ben Cohen and Gareth Thomas was so amazing," said Grizzlies President Jamie Day. "It means so much to have these two athletes, one gay and one straight, both working to end bullying and stereotypes that have prevented so many men and women from fully experiencing the life-changing brotherhood of team sports without shame or guilt."