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2016 Olympic bid moves more U.S. rugby fans to rally behind the Eagles

The “U-S-A” chants and celebratory cheers had given way to silence.

The last American rugby players had jogged off the pitch after a series of photos commemorating a recently-earned 2016 Olympic bid, and the only signs of a raucous American crowd were empty beer cans in the bleachers.

But out in the parking lot, Thomas and Natalia Ochieng continued to party.

Natalia stood in the opening of their Escalade’s sun roof and waved an American flag. Music blared from the speaker system as Thomas, dressed in a U.S. rugby jersey and red-and-white-striped shorts, danced alongside the vehicle.

“Look at us having a good time,” Thomas said. “We win, we drink beer, we don’t fight.”

Thomas, a 35-year-old former Kenyan national team rugby player, and his wife serve as prime examples of the rabid and growing number of U.S. rugby fans. The couple follows the Eagles around the world and recently made the trip from Washington, D.C., to London in May for the United States’ first ever HSBC Sevens World Series win.

Rugby followers may lack the acclaim of the American Outlaws, U.S. soccer’s support group, but as the Eagles continue to improve on the pitch, so does the enthusiasm in the stands.

“We have the greatest fans, man,” Thomas said. “We follow them everywhere. And we are going to be there in Rio to make sure they bring that trophy home.

On Saturday and Sunday, the U.S. contingent made its way to Cary. The two-day attendance number for the North America Caribbean Rugby Association Sevens Championship crept over 5,000.

Katie Diaz, the vice president of a club rugby team, the Dallas Harlequins, said she’s seen exponential growth in the American fan base since she started playing seven years ago.

“It’s out of control,” Diaz said. “The support has just grown tremendously.”

During breaks in the action, fans sauntered to the canopy tents that dotted the parking lots at WakeMed Soccer Park. They tossed rugby balls to each other and white ping-pong balls toward a wedge of red Solo cups.

Members of the Raleigh Rugby Club boasted one of the largest tailgates at the event. William Sult, a clinical trial manager who plays with the club in his spare time, said rugby helps bring together more than 40 people with a range of jobs and lifestyles.

“This is a normal scene,” Sult said. “It’s a bunch of guys that have a lot in common and we love hanging out with each other.”

If it weren’t for the heat, the scene might have passed as a Saturday afternoon in September, but the men and women in American garb don’t want to hear the comparisons to football or soccer.

George Davis III of Jacksonville played rugby for Virginia Tech, the San Diego Old Aztecs and the U.S. Marine Corps. He and his wife, Courtney, travel to Las Vegas each year for the Sevens World Series event and hope to make it to Rio in 2016. In their eyes, the camaraderie that accompanies rugby’s competitiveness elevates the sport’s appeal.

[Rugby is] a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen,” said Davis III, who sported an American-flag-patterned bowtie. “At the end of the day we’re more than welcome to go to the bar and drink with our rivals.”

The game was over, but the celebration continued.

And rugby fans wouldn’t want it any other way.

DiLalla: 919-829-4835

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