American Rugby


by J. Andrew Smith




“Oh, rugby!  That’s the game with no rules and all those of big guys running around, with a funny looking football, and then they stop and everyone gets in to a big huddle, and then they are lifted into the air and there is a lot of fighting and there are no pads.  I don’t get it.  It’s too rough for me.  You have to be crazy to play that!”


This is how most people in the United States, if they have even heard of it, describe this strange foreign sport.  To the unfamiliar eye, that probably is essentially what goes on, except rugby players and fans use foreign words like “ruck,” “maul,” “pitch,” “lineout,” and “scrum” to describe the game. This sport, which evolved out of soccer and is considered the father of American football, is the second most popular sport in the world.  The game is laid out on a rectangular field, called a pitch.  Play is continuous for 80 minutes, with a short break at the half point.  The beauty of the game, seen by some as elegant violence and others as lawless brawl, is its simplicity.  With the objective of setting the ball into the try zone (end zone) to score a five-point try (goal), it is a game of possession, not of inches and yardage (Greeley, 13).  The notable differences between rugby and American football are rugby does not use hard pads, there is no blocking, and it’s illegal to pass the ball forward.  Players must pass the ball laterally or behind them and the ball can only be run or kicked forward. There is no doubt that it is a rough game and that its demeanor certainly attracts a certain type of athlete.  Other sports have their reputations and rugby certainly has its own. The image of a large man with a bloody, mud-splattered jersey, drunk from the post-game social trashing his immediate surroundings is often the one that comes to mind when someone mentions the sport.  However, the lack of knowledge about rugby in the United States often creates a bad image for the sport and its players.  This is a game played all over the world, and even though it does not have the top billing in the United States, its steadily growing popularity indicates that it soon may.


Most Americans begin their rugby careers in college, where the game is held at the club level, except for a few teams, often military schools, which play at the varsity level.  Since the rugby culture is very fraternal, the fact that it is not a varsity sport and not closely watched by the schools or the NCAA creates flexible guidelines for behavior.  Unlike most sanctioned sports where there is a GPA requirement and professional coaches, players are only required to pay dues and be enrolled students.  Unfortunately, many students are only involved with the sport so that they can live up to the known “stereotype of hung-over hooligans savaging one another in the mud, their thoughts half on the match, half on the epic bacchanal to follow” (Lowe).  This results in outsiders seeing the players as a drinking team with a rugby problem. (Low) However, a growing number of teams have become serious about the sport and placed upon themselves strict guidelines of behavior on and off the field.  An excellent example is the University of California, Berkley, who have won over 20 national Division I titles.  After college, competitive players have three levels to choose from in order to continue playing: Divisions I through III.  As one can assume, the DI teams have been fortunate enough to develop a program and have committed players who are focused on training and wining rather than partying or just being social. This is not to say that there are not focused and competitive teams in the lower divisions; the strengths of teams wax and wane just like in any other sport.  The highest level at which one can play in America is for the Eagles, the national team, top players from the Division I teams try out for the chance of competing at the international level.  Unlike other countries, that select their national side from top-level professional players, the United States pick their players from top-level amateur club teams or college teams.  Rugby in the United States is certainly still in its infancy, as evidenced by last June’s match against the Welsh national team, with a final score of 77 to 3.


Like any sport, rugby challenges one’s “commitment, bravery, judgment and physical ability” (Biscombe, 5).  These qualities plus raw aggression attract a certain type of athletes. In England when rugby was still growing many believed it to be a “vehicle for creating a Victorian gentleman,” an image of manliness, hardiness and endurance.  One of the most notable aspects of rugby culture, which, like the rest of the world, Americans have embraced fully, is the fraternal comradeship.  All sports bring people together.  Rugby, however, seems to be unique with its traditional post-game social, or the “third- half” as some call it.  Rugby players take tremendous pride in the fact that they play rugby, and the best way to celebrate is to have a beer with the opposing team after the match.  Along with this beer stories are swapped, songs are sung and friends are made, while only an hour before both teams were ready to kill each other for a win. This fraternal rugby order is quite interesting and has incredible benefits with the only cost being a player.  A great example of this, which many U.S. players have taken full advantage of, is hunting for a job. If a player is moving away or just wants a professional upgrade, all that he needs to do is let his team or the local team where he is moving know and allow the team’s networking do the work for him.  With the advance of the Internet this has become incredibly efficient and a great promotional tool to encourage people to play.  Teams that can help secure a job, a place to live, and provide a group of large, strong men to help one move is a great benefit.


Of all the benefits there are in rugby, being paid to play is not one of them; even at the highest level players only get a stipend for the time that are actually training and playing with the team.  For the rest of the year they are on their own. Fortunately, since most of the players started playing in college, they have a degree and are self-sufficient and in some cases hold advanced degrees.  It is not uncommon for a team to contain every walk of life putting on a jersey on a Saturday morning.  In the Richmond (Virginia) Lions RFC starting 15, players include doctors, engineers, lawyers, students, entrepreneurs, craftsmen, teachers – the whole spectrum of professionals in the work force.  One can concede the fact that as rowdy and destructive as the stereotype portrays, the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones.  In a sport where in game fights and post-game debauchery is common, most players must be self-disciplined enough to focus and be able to work the next day.  Even though it is a world-class sport, it is still just a passion for American players who are not going to allow a negative stereotype get in the way of their playing.


Works Cited


Biscombe, Tony.  Rugby: Steps to Success.  Champaign:  Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc, 1998.


Greeley, Alexandra.  They’re not CRUSHERS… they just play a lot.  Fairfax Connection, September, 1998.


Lowe, Jaime. Fear Factor. Sports Illustrated, April 14, 2005.


Nauright, John.  Making Men - Rugby and Masculine Identity.  London: Frank Cass & Co., 1996.

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