Tony | Rugby could be the sport of the future

· October 2, 2012, 11:32 pm   ·  Updated October 3, 2012, 1:43 am

PMS isn’t a curse. It’s an advantage.

Or so read one of three slogans junior Becky Williams featured on flyers all around Penn’s campus inviting new members to the women’s rugby team. It’s fitting that a sport which flies under the radar so often be promoted so edgily.

It’s even more fitting that rugby is finally gaining visibility both within the Ivy League and around the world.

Harvard announced in August that it is adding women’s rugby as a varsity sport, becoming the first Ivy school to do so. There are currently only five varsity women’s rugby programs nationally, and they’ll be joined by the Crimson beginning in the fall of 2013.

What rugby has going for it is its moderate physicality. Americans love combat sports, and rugby certainly qualifies as one. In this concussion era for major professional sports, rugby can and should be branded as a safer alternative to football.

“I think some people go into it thinking it’s a full contact sport,” Penn women’s rugby captain Marissa Decesaris said. “There is tackling involved, but we really make sure everyone’s safe. There are risks involved in any sport, but it’s so much fun.”

“Any type of athlete can play rugby,” Williams said in support of her facetious flyer.

Unlike in football, players cannot use their head as an offensive or defensive weapon. In rugby, there is more of an emphasis on getting behind a player’s body and taking them to the ground in a safer manner. It’s common for only a few football stars to make all the exciting plays while others only block. On the other hand, every rugby player gets an opportunity to make a tackle or carry the ball and score.

As the phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players grows, parents have a safer, more inclusive sport to offer their children in rugby, which has already got more momentum behind it than a helmet-to-helmet collision.

Rugby was the fastest-growing team sport in the country between 2007 and 2009 (the latest year for which data is available), eclipsing rivals such as lacrosse and hockey, according to a study by America’s Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. The sport’s profile will be boosted by inclusion in the 2016 Olympics and NBC’s acquisition of rights to this year’s rugby World Cup and the next one in 2015.

Having an Olympic stage for the first time since 1924 and being shown on a United States network channel for the first time ever means millions of people will be introduced to the sport in the next few years.

With this kind of visibility, no one should be shocked if rugby works its way significantly from the fringe toward the mainstream in the next few years and gains varsity status throughout the NCAA along the way.

Certainly Harvard’s move toward rugby makes sense given the sport’s emergence, but it also coheres with the 2009 formation of the Ivy Rugby Conference, which constitutes a conference of USA Rugby.

This season marks the first year in the conference for both Penn and Cornell, rounding out the Ancient Eight.

But the Penn women’s rugby team is still a fledgling enterprise, having gone without a home field until last year and having competed against Division III teams until joining Ivy Rugby. Since coach Emily Record is not affiliated with Penn, Williams handles most of the administrative work for the team as match secretary.

The team gets much of its funding from the Department of Recreation and little else.

But in the possibility of becoming a varsity program, it’s possible that many players may be turned off by the rule restraints that come with NCAA varsity recognition.

“The downside [to women’s rugby becoming a varsity sport] would be that, right now, we govern ourselves, so if it became a varsity sport, a lot of that would be out of our hands,” Williams said.

Penn Director of Athletics Steve Bilsky shared a similar sentiment, noting the strictness of compliance and eligibility in varsity sports.

“If you don’t want to come to practice one day, it’s not the end of the world if you’re a club program. But if you decide you don’t want to come to practice as a varsity athlete, you’re probably jeopardizing your status at some point,” Bilsky said.

“Philadelphia’s becoming a little bit of a mecca for [rugby] too, and I could see down the road, rugby taking off in this country, I really can,” he added. “I think it fits, but the problem is when you become an intercollegiate sport, you need to have teams to compete against too, and that’s always a challenge.”

In other words, rugby may be the future, but it’s not the present.

In the meantime, though, kudos to Harvard for putting its hat in the rugby ring. As for the rest of the Ivy League? Just you wait — there are many scrums to come.

MIKE TONY is a junior English and history major from Uniontown, Pa., and is an associate sports editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian. He can be reached at dpsports@thedp.com.

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