Is rugby America's next top sport?
Penn’s rugby club toils away as the football relative searches for a foothold in the United States
October 30, 2013, 3:17 pm · Updated October 30, 2013, 11:22 pm·
It’s another Ivy championship season, but instead of Franklin Field or the Palestra, Penn is fighting the good fight on the pitch at scenic Penn Park.
The winger pitches the ball back to the fly-half who then kicks the ball over the opponents’ head. A valiant scrum-half charges through a line of defenders, scoops up the ball and blazes down the sideline. The scrum-half dives into the corner for a try that would increase the lead and seal the victory for Penn. A perfect end to a hard-fought contest.
Sounds like a Saturday afternoon football game, doesn’t it? Wrong. This is rugby.
For a sport that delivers the same aspects of competition, physicality and mental prowess as football, it’s a wonder why this sport hasn’t taken off in the United States. Football fans can thank rugby for the multi-billion dollar industry they obsess over today.
Why hasn’t rugby taken off here in the United States? What is preventing it from taking the next step into the American sports theater?
At Penn, members of a nascent rugby community are striving to answer these questions.
Though football has borrowed heavily from rugby over the years, it takes a different kind of athlete to excel on a rugby pitch than a gridiron. Football tends to be a sport focused around positional strengths and niche specialists. The demand of athletic ability in rugby — as in soccer — is broader.
“It’s sort of easy to understand and see athleticism in the sport. It combines the quickness and subtleties of basketball and the excellence and physicality of football,” Penn rugby coach Omar Foda said. “Rugby is a forgiving game. You’re not relegated to some sort of side role where you’re just getting hit and maybe once in your life see the ball. You’re an active part of the game and have to be able to play with the ball.”
The 15-player squad is broken into two groups: forwards and backs. Unlike football, where numbers generally correspond to position groups, one’s number in rugby specifically designates one’s position. Numbers one through eight compose the ‘forward’ group that makes up the scrum, while nine through 15 are backs, players that run the ball more frequently and generally score the majority of tries.
Also, the game is played continuously unless interrupted by penalties or by the ball bouncing out of bounds. Therefore, players must have the strength of linemen and the athleticism of soccer players. Just as in football, the tests of mental endurance — along with raw, physical brutality — remain ever-present, which is what fans crave.
Rugby is an incredibly detailed game, but just like any other sport, the best way to learn is through watching a match. Most rugby converts from American sports learn on the fly by simply picking up and playing the game.
Where does rugby stand now in the United States?
“Rugby is the next biggest thing in America,” Penn senior winger Christian Collins said. “It’s football for a younger generation … and will build up to a point where it won’t surpass it but will definitely rival it.”
Though rugby has gained a strong foothold in England, the sport is still struggling to gain followers in the states at all levels, a fact that hasn’t been lost on Penn’s international players.
“So certainly back in England, it was a schoolyard sport that you can play at the earliest of ages,” Penn junior winger Doug Swift said. “There are non-contact forms of rugby from four and up, and obviously you play it through your entire school career. My dad was a rugby fanatic, refereed games and coached a youth league that I was a part of. So, it was also a family thing.”
In the United States, men’s rugby has not taken on a D-I sanction from the NCAA, as it hasn’t generated the necessary support. But this is not to say that the sport hasn’t made strides towards NCAA credibility. The Ivy League has established the Ivy Rugby Conference, which has all of the Ancient Eight play in two separate divisions. This allows the teams to compete in at least eight games throughout the fall.
“Rugby support is almost in all cases, non-rugby. We have our own D-1, 2 and 3 structure,” Penn senior flanker John Colavita said. “The main issue is there is just not enough money. There is very little contribution through the school — most of it is through alumni donations. I don’t foresee a change in that anytime soon.”
USA Rugby administrates all of the organized rugby programs throughout the country. It oversees the administration of 15s in the Northeast during the fall and the West Coast during the spring. There is no real science to divisional breakdowns as some clubs prefer to stay in lower rankings. The Ivy League has a specific conference but has the ability to play against other clubs outside of the conference during the spring, generally known as the sevens season.
For now, the traditional 15s style has taken a back seat in the United States. The sevens give fans a faster, quicker and more exciting game by taking out the forwards and introducing a modified version of the game that only has seven-minute quarters. In recent years, this version of the game has taken off in the collegiate circuit and has become a focus of the spring season in rugby.
“It’s less of a pure form of rugby. It’s all athleticism as opposed to knowing the game, so you can learn it on the fly,” Penn junior fly-half Billy Barron said. “Definitely sevens is where American rugby is — if it’s going to make an impact — is where it’s going to make an impact.”
Rugby has taken on more popularized forms that have achieved a certain level of prominence. Take, for instance, the Collegiate Rugby Championships that were played at PPL Park in Chester, Pa. this past summer. The tournament saw teams from all over the country, including fellow Ivy League programs like Dartmouth and bigger schools like California travel to Philadelphia to compete in the nation’s largest Collegiate Sevens tournaments.
“I think a large part of it is that American sports are so commercial and rugby struggles in that sense against some of the other big sports,” Swift said. “People don’t know what they’re watching unless they’ve taken a kind of interest in it. That’s why you’ve seen rugby sevens take the forefront in terms of U.S. rugby to push the sport here.”
The Next Step?
Rugby’s next chance to shine may be when the sport is featured in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. A worldwide audience could work wonders towards building a fan base.
“Everyone watches the Olympics,” Barron said. “People watch badminton and table tennis randomly in the Olympics, so they’ll start watching it in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. There is potential for [the U.S. Rugby team] to do really well there unlike trying to beat teams in London and New Zealand.”
If the United States can turn out a good result in Rio, then there is potential that America’s interest in rugby could begin to unfold right before the eyes of the rugby world.
“The strides have been tremendous,” Foda said. “When people see it and want a demand … people say ‘wow this is a really cool game.’ They’ll want to see the bigger matches and World Cup. People will soon start to say ‘why don’t we have it on cable?’ and it will grow.”
USA Rugby, the national organization for the sport, has made significant strides since its inception in 1975.
In the time since then the United States developed the first national body of rugby, they have won the inaugural Women’s World Cup in 1991, sent the only American to referee in a World Cup match and have launched a youth program that has exploded in recent years.
“[The sport is] growing through the youth programs,” Colavita said. “For the past 10 years, in terms of that, it has been the fastest growing sport in the United States It is getting a lot bigger, but it still hasn’t reached that level of exposure that the other main sports have.
Rugby in the United States has also seen athletes from other sports join ranks on the pitch, such as former track star and college football player Carlin Isles, who has generated an amazing following for his speed. USA Rugby also has an initiative where it contacts players that have recently been cut by NFL clubs in hopes of recruiting new talent.
The Road Ahead
Penn rugby has served as a role model in terms of recruitment, fraternity and competition. Foda runs a tight ship and is eager to have others learn about the life-changing sport.
“It’s all about exposure,” Foda said. “More people will see it and understand it and will fall in love with it.”
The first step is raising exposure. For an international sport, rugby has remained relatively under the radar. But the sport has caught the attention of youth, college players and adults alike and the efforts of USA Rugby and the Olympic team will only help the cause.
USA Rugby and other affiliated groups have a great organization in place, and it would not be surprising to see the sport explode onto the scene in the near future.
It’s a long road ahead, but rugby can achieve nothing if it doesn’t try.