Unless you’ve been living under a rock this summer, you’ve probably seen a new sport at the 2016 Rio Olympics: rugby sevens!
This fast-paced, hard-hitting sport has captured the attention of millions of sports fans around the world.
With the Olympics complete, interest in rugby is spiking nationwide. As rugby heads into the start of another competitive season, now is the pefect time to look back and ask what America has learned about rugby.
1. Rugby is hella exciting!
Anyone who has watched Olympic rugby can tell that it is a captivating sport: it is the perfect combination of strength, speed and endurance.
Forget the commercials, timeouts, and technicalities that you are used to in most professional sports in the US: in rugby the action never stops.
Even the half time break is just a few minutes long!
But words can only express so much. Check out the highlights from the Olympic Gold Medal match featuring Fiji v. Great Britain, or the excellent highlight reel below of the 2016 London Sevens tournament:
2. Football, soccer, basketball and hockey skills are well-suited to rugby
Given the combined strength, speed, and endurance required for rugby, it’s not surprising that the US Olympic teams attract elite athletes from many sports.
On the Men’s team, Nate Ebner and Carlin Isles stand out for their success in the NFL and in track. On the Women’s side, we also see track athletes like Lauren Doyle and Victoria Folayan, but also multi-sport athletes like Alev Kelter (ice hockey, soccer).
Soccer and track athletes bring speed and endurance, while football brings the tackling and strength.
Hockey and basketball have great mixes of contact, speed, endurance, and hand-eye coordination. Overall strategy and the 2-on-1 mentality of these sports also translate very well to the rugby pitch.
Even more pointed is the overlap in tackling skills between rugby and American football. With the ongoing concerns about head injuries in the NFL, teams including the Seattle Seahaks and Ohio State have started coaching rugby-style tackling.
In fact, athletes of most sports have skills that can be transferred to rugby. As such, rugby is great for offseason conditioning and cross-training.
3. Rugby has two main variations: sevens and fifteens.
With 7-person rosters, 7-minute halfs and 7-point scores, rugby sevens made a very fine Olympic debut.
But while rugby sevens was a first for the sport in Rio, rugby fifteens or 15-a-side rugby has some Olympic history having made 5 appearances in the early 1900s. Fifteens was last played at the Olympics in 1924 when the US won the Gold medal.
Historically, a fifteens match lasting 80 minutes has been the dominant version of rugby in the US, but today most clubs play both versions.
Typically, rugby sevens is played in the summer and rugby fifteens in spring and autumn.
4. Rugby has a unique, unspoken, and unparalleled code of conduct.
One of the most important and enduring qualities of rugby is the camaraderie not just between teammates but amongst opponents as well.
No matter what happens during a match, once the final whistle blows there is a mutual respect that takes over. Players and coaches retire to the aftermatch social to share food, tall tales, and perhaps a beverage or two.
But it’s not just at social events: the character and class of the sport can be seen during matches as well. For example, a player may stop a match to tend to an injured opponent before the referee and medical professionals can react.
You’ll also witness a full 80,000-person stadium going silent to allow a kicker to concentrate on a conversion kick.
On a rare occasion, you may even see a player apologizing to a referee for foul play as Romanian Johan Van Heerden did during the 2015 Rugby World Cup (see video below).
In every aspect of the sport, rugby’s code of conduct shines through, builds character, and delivers respect to those who play the game.
Even at the Olympics this unique character showed through. At the medal presentation ceremony, each of Fiji’s players knelt and clapped three times when receiving their medal in a show of humility and respect to Great Britain’s Princess Anne, who was presenting.
5. Rugby is America’s fastest growing team sport and the world is starting to take notice.
Even before the hype of the Olympics, rugby participation rates in the US have seen incredible growth. In fact, rugby has been the fastest-growing team sport in the nation for the last 3 three years.
This popularity has, not surprisingly, brought so much interest that a professional league called PRO Rugby played it’s inaugural season in the months leading up to the Olympics.
And it seems like nearly every day commercial interest in American rugby makes the sports news as overseas professional leagues look to expand their reach.
Even local rugby clubs are now going professional, and TV networks are airing professional matches from all over the world.
This expanding interest in American rugby also appears to be having an impact on International standings. The US Men’s rugby sevens team now ranks sixth in the world. In the last 18 months they defeated the mighty All Blacks from New Zealand and in the early rounds of the Olympics lost by just a single score to Fiji, the eventual Gold medalists.
With America’s depth of athletic talent and the crossover appeal of the sport, you can be sure that US rugby will remain on an upward trajectory for years to come.