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Originally published June 13, 2013 at 8:22 PM | Page modified June 14, 2013 at 10:38 PM

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Waisale Serevi’s mission to grow rugby brings U.S. national team to Seattle

The Eagle Sevens are training here this week in preparations for the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Russia starting June 28. They scrimmaged against Serevi’s club team at Magnuson Park on Wednesday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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For 45-year-old Waisale Serevi, a stroll down any major street in downtown Seattle may be nothing out of the ordinary. Serevi isn’t fazed by the relative anonymity, but it’s a telling barometer for rugby in the United States.

In Hong Kong or New Zealand, every major road might as well be a red carpet for Serevi, internationally renowned as the “King of 7s.” Rugby sevens, that is — a more fast-paced version of the traditional 15-man sport.

But in Seattle, the Fiji native is simply a man on a mission. He’s been at the forefront of Seattle’s growing rugby community and helped bring the Eagle Sevens — the U.S.’s national team for men’s sevens — here for a week of training ahead of the Rugby World Cup Sevens in Moscow starting June 28.

Taking time off from their World Cup training regimen at the Olympic Training Center in Southern California, the Eagles Sevens traveled north, where a few hundred fans watched them scrimmage the Serevi Select squad, a team of former international stars, including Serevi himself.

The sides played a modified, friendly version of touch rugby Wednesday at Magnuson Park, showing off in front of players of all ages.

Former England Sevens standout Ben Gollings has accumulated more points than any other player in sevens history and ran with the Serevi Select squad.

“If you look at the amount of people who have come out on a Wednesday afternoon to support this, I think it’s brilliant,” Gollings said after the match.

It’s all part of Serevi’s mission to grow the sport in Seattle.

“It’s tough but it’s challenging; it’s not difficult, it’s possible,” says Serevi, a native of Fiji who has been referred to as the Michael Jordan of international rugby sevens.

Chris Prentice, who helped Serevi start a Seattle-based company called Serevi Rugby, prefers the comparison to Brazilian soccer legend Pele.

“I think about where soccer was in the early 80s and when Pele came through America, what did he do?” Prentice said. “He inspired three different generations for soccer in America.”

Serevi still has his fair share of inspiring to do, but the two-time Rugby World Cup champion certainly has a foot in the door with the company he helped start. According to its website, Serevi Rugby is “a young company founded by Serevi and three rugby enthusiasts hell-bent on growing the game of rugby in North America and beyond.”

It’s been nearly a century since rugby sevens last appeared as an Olympic sport, but in 2009, the IOC selected the sport to be part of the 2016 program in Rio de Janeiro.

Twelve teams will compete in the 2016 Olympics, with a three-stage qualification process starting in 2014. The U.S. is ranked 11th in the IRB Sevens World Series standings.

While the Olympics have resurrected the flourishing sport, Seattle has gone above and beyond to raise awareness for it.

The King of 7s has attracted other international icons to help Serevi Rugby.

For younger players in the region, Serevi Rugby, and the international icons like Gollings that it has brought in, have had an unparalleled impact.

“To see actual grown men coming out and playing as a job, it’s really impressive and kind of encouraging for us,” said Connor Miller, a Bishop Blanchet sophomore and a member of the Seattle Vikings rugby club. “It makes us better players.”

Theo Lawson: tlawson@seattletimes.com

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