The Las Vegas Blackjacks
Wednesday, April 29, 2009 | midnight
Beyond the Sun
It’s nearing midnight at the Bellagio poker room and Chris Smith is in the middle of a high-stakes game of five-card stud.
It is fitting that the chief benefactor of a nationally regarded Las Vegas rugby club, nicknamed the Blackjacks, makes his living on the green felt in the city’s most luxurious casinos.
His once-towering chip stack begins to topple as Smith folds hand after hand. When he finally gets playable cards, his opponents trump them mercilessly. In just 20 minutes he’s down $8,000.
But he doesn’t flinch. What matters most to him right now is the opportunity to win a game he has been trying to conquer for the past 20 years. And this opportunity might be his last.
“I’m 39 and worn down,” Smith says as he peers at his poker hand. “I’ve played rugby for 20 years, been to the Sweet 16 eight times, played with some of the best teams in the United States and still haven’t won a national championship. I want to win one before I quit.”
The Blackjacks share Smith’s championship aspirations and frustrations.
Despite missing the playoffs just twice in the past 13 years, the Blackjacks have never won USA Rugby’s National Club Championship – a 32-team tournament that represents the pinnacle of amateur rugby in America.
From 1996 to 2003, the Blackjacks made the Round of 16 every year. They broke into the top eight from 1997 to 2001, when they went 55-9. Their highest finish was 2006, when they reached the semifinals.
But this year the Blackjacks, ranked as the third-best team in the nation by the Web site erugbynews.com, are poised for a championship run.
“It’s good to be up there, but, you know, we’re still only No. 3,” said team captain Tom Carter. “We’re looking at being at the top.”
First, however, the Blackjacks (7-3) have to overcome the Sacramento Lions (5-5) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sunset Park in the tournament’s opening round.
Tragedy to triumph
Winning the national championship would be a storybook ending to a season that started with tragedy, a season dedicated to a friend.
“This year we dedicated our season to one of our former players who lost his son in an accident last year,” said Blackjacks team president Rob Cornelius.
Former Blackjack Kevin Faber had long contributed to the team both on and off the field. When Faber suffered the untimely death of his son Nick in 2008, the Las Vegas rugby community rallied around its brother.
“All our jerseys have Nick’s initials on them,” Cornelius said. “We just wanted to give back to somebody who gave a lot to our club. We’ve always taken care of our old boys and we love to keep everybody involved.”
That bond has kept the club together since 1976 – making them, to their knowledge, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, amateur sports clubs in the valley.
“For some reason we have a great base for a rugby community. We just have a really good group of guys who love playing the game and, you know, Vegas isn’t a bad place for a single guy in his 20s to be,” said Blackjacks vice president Tim Taylor.
The community meant so much to Taylor that he stayed on as the team’s absentee vice president even after moving to Seattle to pursue a career as a firefighter. He attributes the team’s continued success in his absence to the work of Cornelius and head coach Jason Kelly.
“Those two guys have really put in the groundwork to get players,” Taylor said. “They brought players in from all over and they’ve really done a good job of recruiting and taking care of guys.”
Losing the pads
One of those recruits is former Florida Gators starting defensive tackle Bryan Savelio, a Las Vegas native and Basic High graduate.
When Savelio first practiced with the Blackjacks, the sport was as foreign to him as it is to many in the Southern Nevada desert.
“I grew up playing football,” Savelio said. “I wore pads, you know. And all these guys called me a girl, basically, for wearing pads my whole life.”
However, when the 6-foot-2 athlete got his hands on the rugby ball – and with it the opportunity to run at the opposition – he became hooked.
“This year was the first year I came out and I actually liked it,” Sevelio said. “Playing football, the big guys usually don’t get to run the football. In rugby, the big guys get to run the football. I was sold.”
“For a guy like Bryan, he played defensive tackle for years,” Cornelius said. “So now he gets to carry the ball, he’s offense, he’s defense … he gets to do more than he did in a position in a sport where you have just one job and one task.”
Cornelius, himself a football-to-rugby convert, has been with the team since 1987. He is one of the club’s few holdovers from last season’s administration, which saw Taylor and longtime head coach Steven Richards leave Las Vegas.
In stepped Kelly, a former Blackjack who retired from a long career in professional rugby to pursue coaching.
“Jason comes from rugby stock in New Zealand,” Taylor said. “He played professionally in Europe, he played in the Super league and for the U.S. national team. So I mean, he came back and brought that professionalism with him.”
But the pieces didn’t immediately fall into place.
The wake-up call
In February, the Blackjacks lost back-to-back matches in the final seconds. The second defeat marked the low point of the season.
Finances and off-field commitments forced the Blackjacks to play a game at Santa Monica, Calif., with the minimum of 15 players. Since rugby teams start 15 players, the team could not afford an injury or ejection.
“It’s a big commitment,” Kelly said. “You know, sometimes a lot of the guys don’t have the money to travel. They are expected to pay out of the pocket and sometimes it’s hard.”
Despite the disadvantage, the Blackjacks managed a 3-3 draw at halftime. They ended up having to play 14 against 15 when Vaha Esikia, a U.S. national player recovering from knee surgery, could not continue into the second half.
The Blackjacks lost, 18-16.
“It was a big setback against a team we should have beaten,” Kelly said. “We realized that’s the sort of situation we want to avoid if we want to compete more consistently. It was definitely a big wake-up call for the guys for sure.”
It woke up Smith.
“That’s when I really started to get involved,” Smith said. “I called up Rob and he said it was just a one-time thing, so I went to watch them play and saw that they were really good. They were just disorganized.”
The talent the team displayed inspired Smith to commit to the club as more than just a player. He became a benefactor, using the money he earns as a professional poker player to help the team pay for transportation and accommodations.
“They got more interested because they saw how they could do it,” Smith said. “It wasn’t about money anymore. It was about hard work.”
The Blackjacks outscored their last four opponents, 148-27. Their defense has been particularly impressive, as the Blackjacks have not conceded a try – the rugby equivalent of a touchdown – in three games.
“Everything just seemed to come together at the end of the season,” Carter said. “We’re kind of peaking at the right time.”
That surge helped them win the Southern California Rugby Football Union regular season championship and earn the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference of the National Club Championship tournament.
“Honestly, if we play to our full potential and are fully fit I don’t see why we can’t win it,” Carter said. ”We do have a good team, we just need a little bit of discipline … with dedication, I think we can go all the way.”