The rise of rugby into American sports culture

Rugby is a sport that is vaguely familiar to many in the U.S., and is even less evident to those who stay true to old-fashioned American sports traditions like football, baseball or basketball.

Rugby is a sport that is vaguely familiar to many in the U.S., and is even less evident to those who stay true to old-fashioned American sports traditions like football, baseball or basketball. Without pads or blocking, rugby separates itself from football and has helped bring light to concerns regarding what seems like inevitable injury.

The sport is just now making its resurgence onto the Olympic field, more than 90 years after the last rugby game was played for a medal. This comes as great news for a very proud group of nations that have only had a chance to shine in the rugby world cups, which occur every four years.

The sport that began in England nearly 200 years ago has flourished in most every part of the world, excluding the United States. Even more popular in recent years is the shorter- and faster-paced take on the game of rugby, known simply as rugby sevens.

Rugby was a part of the Olympics four times between 1900 and 1924, with the U.S. taking gold and shocking France twice, taking back-to-back gold medals in 1920 and 1924. This game, however, was the traditional 15 per side rugby that has been around since the beginning.

2016 will see the newer rugby sevens style of tournament play. Seven is the magic number in the game, as there are seven players on the field for each team and halves run a much shorter seven minutes, compared to the traditional rugby 40-minute halves. The time seems very limited, but 14 minutes of constant running and tackling proves to tire some of the world’s best athletes.

The game of sevens continues to grow rapidly in popularity because of how simple it is to learn and how quickly the game moves.

The approval of rugby in the Olympics provides motivation for less competitive countries in the sport to make strides in training and compete against powerhouse opponents all over the world.

This past year alone has seen great progress in getting the green light to showcase what USA rugby is made of and where it could potentially go. Collegiate sevens competitions have been aired on NBC, as well as the recent Rugby International Sevens tournament that was held in Las Vegas only weeks ago.

Although the current USA squad is made up of athletes that have day jobs during the week, playing with local clubs provides exposure and valuable experience. The powerhouses in sevens rugby include countries like New Zealand, England, South Africa, Samoa and Wales. All of those teams are made up of players that are able to practice as a team year-round, and are paid for it.

Despite lack of funds and support, the U.S. still ranks among the top 15 in the world.  Local Portland rugby club head coach and former player Andrew Edmundson has credentials going back to his home country of Australia, where rugby is one of the national sports. As a loyal supporter himself, he can’t help but be excited to see where the sport can go in America, especially now that it’s caught some national attention.

“I really think that the pressure has increased in a good way, as the U.S. will try to become even more competitive,” said Edmundson. “We have actually been improving and competing well at the sevens tournaments against the world’s best.”

With new workout facilities being built for the team, it is likely that sponsors will start helping support progression over the next few years. A lot of time is still needed to work on cohesion among players who are currently not able to practice as a unit until the final weeks before competition.

In an attempt to broaden the sports knowledge to youth in the states and expose talent early on, an initiative has been brought up to encourage kids from fifth grade to eighth grade to participate in touch rugby to get familiar with the sport at a younger age. More Oregon high schools are opening their doors to the sport as well.

While rugby may never reach the popularity of other sports in the United States, there is room for growth in the highly devoted fan base, according to Portland Rugby club president Ben Altiero. Hard-hitting and fast-paced action should be something any American sports nut would be happy to watch or play.

“I definitely think that rugby could work alongside football rather than against it, since the season typically starts after football is done,” said Altiero. “It does offer a good chance for football players to improve and even stick with rugby if football is not for them.”

The sport is starting to take shape all over the country as clubs, collegiate squads and even high school teams are becoming increasingly competitive. As the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand approaches, large TV networks understand the importance for Americans to be exposed to the sport at its finest. All of the U.S. World Cup games will be televised on NBC in September when the competition starts.

Only time will tell if sevens is something that can stick around for Olympic competition time in the future. However, as long as rugby has the Olympic name attached to it, it’s likely the U.S. will be more than willing to do whatever it takes to become a contender and get fans behind their representative squad. ?