Scrumming for Dollars
(By John Ledesma - Sport, April 1998)
Fearless Americans are flocking to play the fast and furious sport of Rugby, which enjoys feverish international popularity.
So you think Rugby is a sport played only by guys who speak with thick accents and drink dark beer? Well, mate, consider this: The last Olympic rugby gold medal was won by the United States in a crushing defeat of best country France. Of course, the last time rugby was contested in the Olympics was in 1924. And chances are, when the sport returns to the Olympics -- most likely in Athens in 2004 -- the Americans will have considerably stiffer competition.
According to Rugby Magazine, the top U.S. rugby publication, the sport is played by nearly 75,000 hearty athletes in the U.S. Rugby is the most popular men's and second-most popular women's club sport on college campuses, according to the NCAA.
Rugby union football, the traditional form of the game, is played with eight forwards and seven backs on each side, all 15 of whom run with the ball, tackle and pass. The objective is to advance the ball into the opponent's end zone vial lateral passes or forward kicks and to touch it down for a "try" worth five points. A successful conversion kick is worth two points, and a field goal -- an option for a team whose opponents have committed a penalty within their kicker's range -- is worth three.
If many of these terms sound familiar, it's because American football evolved from rugby union football. But rugby players wear no protective outerwear, and fitness is more essential because of the two 40-minute halves with no timeouts and no substitutions. [I keep seeing this "no substitutions" in articles, but we know better. - Wes]
There are well-organized American leagues for players ages 6 to 60. The country's top division is the 2-year-old Harp Super League, played from March 1 through early June by 16 local clubs from all comers of the country. Mike Tracy, general manager of Belmont Shore in Long Beach, Calif., has seen the sport grow. "Competition for our starting 15 players is extremely fierce, but there's a place for every athlete willing to make the commitment," he says. The American ruggers who make up the U.S. national team, the Eagles, are often former college football and basketball stars, including a few ex-NFL players.
Rugby Sevens is an increasingly popular version of the game. The rules are essentially the same except there are only seven players on each side, which results in a much faster and wide-open style of play. It is sevens rugby that is likely to debut at the 2004 Olympics.
Today's international powerhouses play their rugby in the Southern Hemisphere. The South Africa Springboks are the defending champions of the quadrennial Rugby World Cup, having defeated the New Zealand All Blacks, a traditional world-beater, in 1995. The Rugby World Cup, a month-long tournament, was attended live or watched on television by 2.5 billion fans, which made RWC '95 the third-largest sporting event ever staged, according to the International Rugby Football Board.
The Five Nations competition is a yearly event that begin in early March and dates back more than 100 years. It's played among England (the country in which rugby originated), Ireland, Scotland, Wales and France. Although the French will never get to play the Americans in the tournament, you can bet they'll look for Olympics revenge in Athens -- and then they'll buy the Eagles a dark beer.