Huna Hogs battle in Ferndale

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 12, 2014 

FERNDALE - Jon Thiel has played in three World Cup tournaments for Canada, but the ruggedly handsome longtime rugby enthusiast says the Can-Am 7s Tournament and the Huna Hogs team have a unique emotional meaning for him.

The 39-year-old from White Rock, B.C., grateful to be back after missing the past two tournaments, says he plans to enjoy a one-day "season" for, as he put it, "a long as a Higher Power will let me."

Thiel is like several of the older Hogs - they may no longer play too often, if at all, for the rest of the year. But for three games on a special Saturday every July, they're all about the thrills and fellowship of rugby.

Not to mention as many visits to the legendary Beer Garden at the Ferndale Polo and Rugby Fields as they can manage.

In between their second and third games of the day on Saturday, July 12, the three dozen or so Hogs - not so pretty in their traditional pink but still definitely a gorgeous sight to see - thundered forth with a hearty song while families and friends gathered around to take photos for the 36th year.

Thiel - along with U.S. National Team member Nick Wallace from Squalicum High; St. Mary's College scoring star Henry Hall and the ever-hustling Mike Pajic from White Rock - all scored several trys to lead the Hogs to two victories in three games in the 36th tournament. The Hogs overwhelmed Skagit County 36-5 and The Quake 41-14, but the fleet Tacoma Nomads beat the Hogs 24-10.

"This is always awesome," said Thiel, a former professional player. "I've played a lot of games, but I always come here if I can. This is my favorite 7s tournament of all time."

Ric Hall, a 59-year-old artist/sculptor who was among several "Founding Fathers" of the Can-Am 7s on hand for the fun, said he took a run or two on the field.

Hall, who does beautifully impressionistic pen-and-ink and pastel rugby art, is still known as Zippy for what he called "my surprising display of speed and quickness in my younger days."

On the other hand, there was nothing surprising at all about the speed and quickness of his ultra-fit 21-year-old son, Henry Hall, who began playing eight years ago and made the U20 U.S. National Team, and now dreams of accomplishing some of what Thiel and Wallace have enjoyed on the highest levels of rugby.

"This is real tradition," said Henry Hall, expressing pride in his father as an original Hog. "It's really a magnificent event (involving hundreds of players and family members). This keeps the spirit of the game alive. And it's an opportunity to have fun but not to be concerned with pressure."

Nothing any of the Hogs accomplish - on or off the turf - surprises tournament founder Paul Horne, who was on hand as a retired tournament organizer but enthusiastic supporter after directing all the previous versions of the event.

Horne is still very much involved in the sport, however, while beginning his third year as director of rugby and head coach of Western's club team.

As usual, Horne played host at his home in Bellingham on the night before the tournament for the annual gathering of 30 or so of the Huna Hogs.

One Hog who couldn't be there was former Bellingham High athlete Shawn Pittman, a U.S. National Team member sidelined since November because of a concussion.

But Pittman - who organized a friendly team known as Pitty Kitty to compete the Can-Am 7s - had a good excuse, since he got married on Friday.

Another U.S. National Team member who was on hand as a guest was former Sehome athlete Titi Lamositele, who has joined the program of the famed London Saracens in England.

Horne, a coach for more than four decades, gave Thiel his start in rugby as a 12-year-old in Canada. In turn, Horne noted that Thiel inspired Wallace to give rugby a try (pardon the pun).

Other local teams in the tournament - which has a competitive division and a social division - included the Chuckanut Bay men and women, Pitty Kitty and Western's club squad.

Seattle's powerful Old Puget Sound Beach - known to all in the rugby world as OPSB - used the competitive division as a national tournament qualifier. The tournament will be held in late summer at Magnuson Park in Seattle.

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