The Rise of American Rugby

The United States just exploded onto the global rugby scene, and you had no idea it even happened.

Rugby is not a well known sport in the United States, so here are a few facts to guide you through this article. There are three kinds of rugby played internationally: union (fifteen versus fifteen), league (thirteen versus thirteen), and lastly sevens (I hope this one doesn’t need explanation). The most popular form of Rugby is union, this is the version with large scrums, and is featured every four years at the Rugby World Cup. Rugby sevens is the second most popular form and features a great deal of scoring and speed. It will be featured at the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Rugby league is popular mainly in northern England, Australia, New Zealand and southern France.

The United States’ once pathetic excuse for a national union team traveled to the Rugby World Cup in England this past autumn and went toe-to-toe with successful sides Scotland, Samoa and Japan. Ultimately, the US did not win a game. They were not expected to win a game, especially with top-two global powerhouse South Africa in their group. But the fact that they kept the matches close, save for the South Africa bout, sent a message to the global community that soon they would no longer be an easy victory on the schedule.

Isles Speeds Past a New Zealand All Black
Carlin Isles Speeds Past a New Zealand All Black

USA Rugby, the governing body that controls the sevens and union squads was only founded in 1975. It was ultimately recognized by World Rugby in 1987. Nations like England, South Africa and New Zealand have been playing competitive, high quality rugby for over a century now and their infrastructures produce top quality professional rugby players. The United States has a much different history. Technically, the United States are the reigning Olympic gold medalists from the 1924 Paris games, the last time Rugby was featured at the Olympics, where they won 17-3 versus highly favored France. At the time rugby was one of the more popular team sports in the United States, with Ivy League teams such as Yale dominating the collegiate level. As the NFL was created in the years following the 1924 games, American football gradually overtook rugby as the most popular collision sport. American rugby lay dormant for decades and is just now coming back into its own.

Gold Medal Winning 1924 US XV in France
Gold Medal Winning 1924 US XV in France

This summer, rugby (albeit sevens and not union) will return to the Olympics, and the United States will be at center stage once again. Thanks to a massive boost in popularity and talent levels, the American rugby sevens squad is in fact favored to medal at the games. How has the US risen to such heights so quickly?

Promotion at the youth level has provided US Rugby with scores of talented ruggers. While many American parents consider it to be more violent than American football, rugby has actually been proven to be much safer. With fewer concussions and devastating injuries, collegiate athletes who don’t want to risk their well-being have have turned to rugby as an alternative. In fact, over 2 million Americans have participated in youth rugby initiatives since 2008. College level rugby has also experienced a surge in numbers, as registered rugby players increased from 28,000 in 2008 to 32,000 in 2010. The numbers continue to rise. The NSCRO (National Small College Rugby Organization) increased from 85 teams in 2007 to 200 in 2012. Many more colleges have recently designated their teams as varsity or “olympic” and recruit heavily. In fact, teams like the University of California at Berkley have come to be respected internationally, also providing a good portion of the current US squad.

America's most successful collegiate club
America’s Most Successful Collegiate Club: Cal

While the US union team has a ways to go before they can feasibly beat an England or an Australia, the sport has made strides domestically this year as a professional rugby union league is planned to launch later in 2016, with some notable foreign players set to play in the States. The creation of a professional rugby union league in the United States will facilitate the popularity and growth of the sport beyond the collegiate and youth levels, an important step in US Rugby union making the leap to a global power.

The sevens squad has experienced a much more rapid rise to the top, thanks to the emphasis on athleticism over skill. Since 2012, when rugby was announced to be featured at the 2016 Olympics, US sevens have become increasingly more legitimate, and has begun paying their players. These players have been plucked from the vast pool of dominant American athletes. Former sprinter, turned Glasgow Warriors star, Carlin Isles is considered the fastest rugby player in the world. Thanks to players like Isles, the US has managed to defeat major powerhouse teams and even won the London Sevens, a noted annual sevens tournament often won by New Zealand and Australia. They have one of the strongest squads headed into this summer’s games in Rio.

US Sevens celebrating their title in London, 2015
US Sevens Celebrating Their Title in London, 2015

Why should you care? Just look to soccer, where in 1990 the United States qualified for their first World Cup since 1950, and have not missed one since, even making it to the quarterfinals in 2002. American rugby has nowhere to go but up, just be sure to jump on the bandwagon before it’s too late.

Images Via, The Guardian, NYTimes, wikipedia, Getty Images