When the Alaska Midnight Sun 7s rugby tournament first started nearly 30 years ago, “it used to be a lot of the local guys just kind of screwing around,” according to tournament director and vice president of the Alaska Rugby Union, Jami Almonte.
The 27th annual event, which has featured teams from all over the country and players from across the world, was held over the weekend at the picturesque Alaska Mountain Rugby Grounds.
The Queen City Clowns, one of the 20 teams competing over the weekend, are a throwback to those pranksters of the past.
They made the journey to Alaska from Charlotte, North Carolina, and have one of the most interesting origin stories, along with diverse backgrounds and some hilarious motivations.
While several members had already been getting together to play for a decade, the team wasn’t officially formed until 2020 during the pandemic.
“Rugby brings everybody together, so we just started it up with all our friends,” said Brandon Sorkin who goes by the clown name Lord Pennywise. “Good time, good vibes and athletic people would show out at these tournaments to try to win it.”
The rest of the Clown roll call includes Ronald, Headass, JoJo, Happy Slappy, Wheezy, Fuji San, Peek-a-boo, Chuckles and Binky. Each of them let out a “honk! honk!” after announcing their respective clown names with the exception of Wheezy, who jokingly struggles to push the words out.
Many of them picked names that coincide with their personalities, and Sorkin even joked that some of them used ChatGPT to help them decide.
While the majority of the Clowns live in Charlotte, some of them hail from other countries, including Japan and South Africa.
“We have a lot of culture here but all of us come together for the same reasons,” Sorkin said.
They refer to the team as “the circus,” and after every tournament, they all gather and decide where they’ll hit the road the following year so they can start planning and saving.
“Last year, we were in Wilmington, North Carolina, and after a good tournament, we all came together and we heard about the Field of Dreams in Alaska,” Sorkin said. “It hasn’t been easy to put it together, but we’re here now and we’re having a great time.”
This marked the first time that any of them have traveled this far north — and the trip hasn’t disappointed.
“It has definitely exceeded expectations,” Sorkin said. “This is one of the dream tournaments on the bucket list. A lot of us flew 15 hours to make it to Anchorage and it’s been amazing.”
They came up to Alaska a week ahead of the tournament to take in the sights and scenery.
“We love this town, it’s beautiful, and we’ve had a great time,” Sorkin said.
Rugby creates pathways to travel the globe
The sport has provided an avenue to see the world for many, including Jenny Matheson, one of the co-founders, players and the coach of the South Shore women’s rugby team.
The club, based in Honolulu, Hawaii, was the 2022 Alaska Midnight Sun 7s women’s tournament champion.
Matheson is originally from Canada — specifically, the east coast of Nova Scotia — and before she moved to Hawaii, she lived for eight years in Dubai, where she played for a number of teams, including the Dubai Hurricanes.
Prior to that, she lived in England and played for the Women’s Premiership, which was the top level of women’s rugby union in the U.K. for nearly three decades since its inception in 1990.
“I’ve personally been in rugby since 1996 and now I dabble in playing, but I want to give other girls the opportunity because I think the sport is so amazing,” Matheson said.
She and three other women started the team in 2019 and they made the finals in their first time entering the Midnight Sun 7s tournament that year.
“We started with it just before COVID so we had to have a bit of a pause, but after that happened, we kicked back up last year,” Matheson said.
The Alaska Midnight Sun and New York 7s tournaments are the two main out-of-state tournaments that they frequent, but they also play against a lot of local teams back in Hawaii.
“We’ve got ideas to carry on and go to lots of places as they come to us,” Matheson said.
The team has enjoyed coming to Alaska because of the hospitality they receive and all the fun they have on and off the pitch.
“I think we have a really nice opportunity to keep coming back and letting Alaska grow the rugby community and this tournament as well,” Matheson said. “It’s always such a great time.”
Growth in Alaska rugby, and fun tournament challenges
The Alaska Midnight Sun 7s tournament is pretty well known among the rugby community nationally.
“The mountain grounds here are a destination for a lot of rugby players and the dream for a lot of us,” Almonte said. “It’s not super hard to get people to want to come here, the only issues are flights and all that.”
Some of the teams from around the state and country opted to camp out on the outskirts of the grounds instead of renting an Airbnb or staying at a hotel, and some stayed in the cabins that facility owner Justin Green provides.
One of the fun and unique adaptations to the scoring system that they use for the tournament is the pond jump.
Many players struggle to make kicks after a player crosses the opponent’s goal line for a score, so in lieu of attempting a kick, if the scoring player jumps into one of the small ponds on either side of the field, their team would be awarded the two extra points.
The innovation was adopted about 10 years ago when Alaska rugby Olympian Alev Kelter visited the grounds with several members of the U.S. team and did a fundraiser for the youth rugby program by jumping in the pond.
“Ever since then, we’ve added the try dive as an automatic converted try at all of our tournaments because it’s just kind of fun and quirky and people tend to have a good time,” Almonte said.
While a downside of the pond jump is soggy shoes, some still prefer it to the drop kick attempt that is required for 7s style rugby. That style of play also involves seven players per side playing seven-minute halves, instead of the traditional 15-player sides with 40-minute halves.
Almonte has been involved with the organization for the past five years, and during her time she has seen Alaska’s rugby community thrive, weather the storm that was the pandemic and grow in popularity and participation, especially among women.
“Last year was the first year that women up here have ever played 15s rugby, which is a different style than this, but we’ve had enough women to be able to actually compete at the style of rugby that everyone plays during their competitive season,” she said.
Sevens is what is mostly played in the summer season in the Lower 48 as well as the Olympics.