It was a bright, gorgeous November afternoon at Soldier Field and every seat was filled.
Chants of “USA! USA!” rolled across an NFL stadium transformed for one day into the rugby capital of America.
The U.S. national team, the Eagles, charged onto the field to battle the All Blacks of New Zealand, the world’s best (and best-known) team. The crowd of 61,500 nearly tripled the record for a rugby game in the U.S.
There might not be anybody in Chicago who is more excited to see the legendary All Blacks play at Soldier Field on Saturday than Paul Lasike, the Bears’ rugby-loving fullback from New Zealand.
The atmosphere that fall day in 2014 was electric, says longtime U.S. team member Chris Wyles. He could hardly believe it.
“It was amazing to play at such an iconic stadium in the U.S. and then to have pretty much a packed-out stadium,” Wyles says. “It was just an awesome experience, and it shows you what kind of support rugby could have in the States. It was incredible. I always say, if you expose American sports fans to rugby, they’ll fall in love with it.”
Unfortunately for the Eagles, it was the best and worst of days. The All Blacks scored early and often, silencing the chants en route to a 74-6 victory. It not only was an example of the potential interest in the sport in the U.S., but also how far the U.S. men’s national team must go to compete with the likes of New Zealand or have World Cup success.
Chris Wyles, center, and the Eagles were left behind by Charles Piutau and the All Blacks during their 2014 match in Chicago. Andrew Snook/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Getty Images
Yet when the All Blacks return to Soldier Field to play Ireland on Saturday in front of what is expected to be another big crowd — a day after the Eagles are to play the New Zealand Maori All Blacks at Chicago’s Toyota Park and three months after the sport’s long-awaited return to the Olympics — the rugby landscape in the U.S. is much different than it was two years ago. Wyles says the game in America is “potentially at a turning point.”
‘Expansive and massive growth’
Dan Payne, who recently took over as CEO of USA Rugby, is an enthusiastic former player and coach who says he’ll “wake up at 4 a.m. to talk to anybody” about rugby.
He believes recent developments will add up to big things in the U.S. over the next decade.
“We’re on the cusp of some really expansive and massive growth,” he says.
To Payne, youth programs are the key to long-term success.
For years, the main entry point to rugby was at the college level. Now, USA Rugby is focusing on growth in youth and high school programs. Payne says USA Rugby now has 50,000 registered youth athletes in addition to many more in the 5-12 age bracket who aren’t registered. The game is now played by 35,000 high school athletes in the U.S., 10 times more than a decade ago.
In January, USA Rugby will kick off a new nationwide program to spark youth participation.
“We’re going to use all the energy and momentum and buzz that’s been created to gain as much traction as we can and really drag the game forward,” he says.
Because American kids have plenty of sports options, he says rugby must be introduced before kids start to specialize at age 12 or 13.
Of course, some parents may have second thoughts about allowing their kids to play rugby because it’s a contact sport. Concerns about concussions in American football can carry over to rugby, Payne says, because there’s always potential for injury.
Participation in rugby by U.S. high school athletes has increased tenfold in the last decade. AP Photo/The News-Dispatch, Scott Allen
But he argues that because rugby players don’t wear helmets or pads, the game is safer because tackling techniques are different. Players are taught to lead with their shoulders, not heads, in contact. The first couple of years in youth rugby are devoted to teaching safe techniques, Payne says.
In fact, Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has been a longtime proponent of teaching rugby tackling techniques to his football players as a way to mitigate head injuries.
A USA Rugby study of collegiate rugby put the concussion rate at less than half that of football (2.0 to 4.5 per 1,000 player exposures). Another 2014 study put the rate at 2.5. Some other studies put it higher. It’s an issue that World Rugby and USA Rugby have been addressing with safety protocols and education programs.
Nate Ebner, who played rugby long before he turned to football at Ohio State and became a special-teams ace for the New England Patriots, believes the sport’s exposure at the Rio Olympics (rugby hadn’t been part of the Games since 1924) will funnel kids into the game. He has noted a big jump in participation and skill at the youth and high school levels.
“You can tell kids are picking up the sport at a much younger age,” says Ebner, who was on the U.S. team that finished ninth in Rio, where the fast-paced, seven-a-side version of rugby was played.
New England Patriots player Nate Ebner’s presence on the U.S. Olympic rugby team generated attention for the sport in Rio. Brian Peterson/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire
“The inclusion of rugby in the Olympics is massive,” says Wyles, also an Olympian. “The exposure that rugby gets is fantastic. It’s something that kids have watched and seen and gone, ‘Hold on a second, maybe this is a sport I can play.'”
Wyles thinks the game sells itself if kids are exposed to it.
“There’s a lot of movement, big athleticism, big hits, attacking play, and it all happens one after another,” he says. “You can go from attack to defense in the space of a second.”
The impact of better youth programs and more exposure is also being felt on the women’s side.
Kelly Griffin, captain of the U.S. women’s Olympic team which finished fifth in Rio, has been part of the national program since 2006. She has played rugby union, the traditional 15-a-side version of the game, but has been part of the national sevens residence program since 2012.
Although most members of the U.S. women’s team in Rio didn’t start playing rugby until college or later, Griffin cites young Olympians Richelle Stephens, 20, and Lilly Durbin, 17, as proof that high-impact talent is in the pipeline. “That shows it’s growing at the younger level,” she says.
At 20, Richelle Stephens was one of the youngest players on the U.S. women’s team at the Rio Olympics. David Rogers/Getty Images
The U.S. women are thriving in both sevens and 15s, where they rank seventh in the world (the U.S. men are No. 17), and Griffin sees that success as part of a larger trend.
“With Title IX and how much the U.S. supports women playing sports, it shows not just in rugby but across all sports,” she says.
Time to go pro
While the game can be grown from the bottom up, it can also grow from the top down. That’s one of the hopes of Doug Schoninger, CEO of PRO Rugby North America, the first fully professional U.S.-based rugby league.
PRO Rugby debuted in April — with teams in Denver, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Columbus, Ohio — at what Schoninger believed was just the right time: after the 2015 World Cup and before the Olympics.
For the first time, American rugby players have the chance to play professionally without going overseas. In the league’s first year, there were 16 international players (including former All Blacks fullback Mils Muliaina and Italian stalwart Mirco Bergamasco) and more than 100 from the U.S.
“Ninety-five percent of them had never been paid to play rugby,” Schoninger says of the Americans.
PRO Rugby North America, a five-team professional league, debuted on a snowy April day in Denver, where the purple-clad home team beat Ohio in overtime. Jason Connolly/AFP/Getty Images
It’s part of American rugby “shifting gears” toward a more professional approach, Schoninger says. He predicts tremendous growth over the next decade to the point where one big event could light a fire under the U.S. game similar to what happened when Japan registered a huge upset at the 2015 World Cup.
“There’s no question we’ll have a Japanese moment like Japan, on the game after they beat South Africa, where they played Samoa and a quarter of their country watched,” he says. “That will happen.”
By the time the 2019 or 2023 World Cups come along — and especially if the U.S. bid to host the 2027 World Cup succeeds — he’s certain the country will be primed to take advantage of such a moment.
Still plenty of work to be done
Success on the sports’ biggest stage, men’s 15s, is the steepest hill to climb. As Wyles noted, he has been in three World Cups and won just one game. U.S. victories on the field haven’t matched the sport’s growth here.
For now, he can’t foresee the Eagles beating the All Blacks.
“I think we’re a long way from that,” he says. “In terms of tangible success on the pitch, the 15s team is going to be something that takes a long time and will be a bit more of a slow burner. I think sevens is something where the guys are almost there anyway. Things can be accelerated much quicker.”
U.S. sevens player Carlin Isles ran track and played football before taking up rugby. Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Japan and Argentina are two nations that have built strong 15s programs in recent years, which gives the U.S. optimism.
Ebner, for one, believes “100 percent” that the U.S. will one day be at a level with New Zealand, England, Australia, South Africa, Wales, Ireland, France and Scotland at the top of the rugby ladder.
“Especially with the amount of talent we have in the country,” he says. “Look at all the amazing athletes that don’t make it in the NFL. Imagine if those guys were playing rugby growing up.”
Payne also notes the potential of athletes from other sports migrating to rugby. If former college football or soccer players express interest, they’re channeled into a fast-track development plan. Men’s sevens standouts Carlin Isles and Perry Baker are examples. Isles was a track and football standout; Baker played football in college and professionally in the Arena League.
“We have crossover athletes that are coming from other sports because they’ve seen what Carlin’s done and they’ve seen what Perry Baker’s done, two of the guys that are some of the best sevens players in the world,” Payne says.
As Wyles looks ahead, he knows the U.S. is making progress. But more evolution is needed.
“The All Blacks are playing, week in and week out, at an extremely high level of rugby in the Super 15 [Super Rugby], whereas some of our guys are amateurs,” he says.
To illustrate that gap, Wyles points to Mike Petri, a New York teacher who has more than 50 caps with the U.S. national team.
“A week and a half before he was playing the best rugby team in the world [the All Blacks] — who are all professional and play at the highest level — he was teaching in Manhattan at Xavier High School,” he says. “That’s a clear example of how different the situation is.”
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Why rugby could be on brink of big things in U.S.
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