KENNESAW, Ga. – As rugby charges toward its Olympic return in 2016 following a 92-year absence, Americans are increasingly wrapping their arms around a sport many now associated with other parts of the world.
About 6,000 fans sat through rain showers Saturday in suburban Atlanta to watch the Eagles — the name for all USA Rugby national squads — storm past Uruguay, 32-13, and qualify for the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England. With Uruguay ahead midway through the second half, the U.S. scored three times in eight minutes to take control.
The teams were composed of 15 men a side playing 40-minute halves. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another Eagles team was getting ready for action with seven men a side. They played only seven-minute halves in the Sevens World Series in Hong Kong, one of 10 stops on the circuit, finishing with a 1-4 record.
While the U.S. has never won the rugby World Cup, America is the two-time defending champion in the Olympic Games (15-man sides), winning in 1920 and 1924 before the sport was removed. The International Olympic Committee decided in 2009 to readmit rugby to the Olympic program, although Sevens will be the Olympic format in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
But as Shalom Suniula said following the win over Uruguay, “At the end of the day, rugby’s rugby and that’s what I enjoy playing.”
Suniula spent six seasons playing Sevens before joining his older brother, Andrew, on the 15s squad. He scored his first career try — rugby-speak for touchdown — in the game against Uruguay.
“I think a lot of Americans will now play rugby because of Sevens and the Olympic platform,” Suniula said. “It’s only seven minutes long each way, then there are two other national teams playing against each other, so it’s more entertaining from a spectator standpoint.”
While Sevens requires more stamina even though games last only 15 minutes (with a 1-minute break), Suniula said 15s is more tactical and “definitely more physical. I found that out the quick way at training camp.”
Because 15s players are so battered and bruised they need at least four days to recover, and that wouldn’t have worked within the two-week Olympic schedule. Players in Sevens can compete on consecutive days.
Some players who make the roster for the 40-day world cup in September/October 2015 may turn around and join the Sevens team in its Olympic quest. Mike Tolkin, who coaches the 15s, and Matt Hawkins, who coaches the Sevens, stay in close contact.
“We have several players who go back and forth,” Tolkin said, noting that the bigger guys might have to lose a little bit of weight to play Sevens, then put it back on to return to 15s.
“Sometimes punting is more prevalent in 15s versus Sevens,” he said. “Other than that, the passing skills, running skills are a lot of the same stuff.”
During the 2014-15 season, the top four nations in the Sevens World Series will qualify directly for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. The U.S. stop on the tour will be Las Vegas in February 2015.
The top four teams in the Women’s World Series also will qualify for Rio.
To complete the 12-team Olympic fields, host country Brazil has an automatic berth, while six teams will advance from IRB regional competitions and one from a world play-off.
The U.S. women were third in the world cup last year and are medal contenders while the men went into the Hong Kong event ranked 13th.
“It’s anyone’s dream obviously to say you’re an Olympic athlete,” said Luke Hume, another Eagles player with plenty of experience in both versions of the game. “I’ll definitely be putting my hand up to play for USA in as many things as I can in regards to rugby.”
Other people from other sports may be putting their hands up as well.
“We’re looking for those crossover athletes,” said Jon Persch, Chief Commercial Officer for USA Rugby. “One of the greatest things about the United States is we produce phenomenal athletes: Football players, basketball players, track & field athletes, wrestlers, bobsled. A great athlete is a great athlete.”
While there are 25 men and 18 women in residence at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., other athletes can use the center to try out for the sport. Elana Meyers, fresh off her silver-medal performance in bobsled in February in Sochi, made the U.S. team for the Women’s Sevens World Series kicking off in China April 5.
“We’re very fortunate to have the Olympic Training Center as a resource for us,” Persch said, “so we’re able to bring in players and we’re able to see if their athletic ability translates to the field and whether or not they actually have a chance to get to the Olympics — and we’ve got a couple of years to do it.
“What we need to be able to do is continue to put rugby out in front of the American public.”
To that end, USA Rugby has moved events around the country. In addition to Atlanta, it has held events in Philadelphia and Houston, has games coming up in Los Angeles and Sacramento and the potential of playing the famous All Blacks from New Zealand in Chicago in November.
“We want to give our fans an opportunity to see the Eagles play,” Persch said, “as well as we’ve got a pretty big country, so we need a lot of people to take a look.”
Josh Hardin drove three-and-a-half hours from Cullowhee, N.C., to see his first international game.
“Now it’s becoming an Olympic sport and becoming more popular, it’s really exciting,” said Hardin, 25, who plays club rugby for Western Carolina.
“Kids who have played football their whole lives are now watching rugby. They’re seeing this new sport, they see it’s action-packed, no pads and it’s pure talent, pure athletes out there.”
Like a pro football game, fans arrived with painted faces and wearing USA Rugby apparel. Joel Dahlhauser, decked out in USA gear, proclaimed it “beautiful to be able to go see a world cup rugby qualifier only a few hours from my home in Johnson City, Tenn., and see some of the most gifted athletes without pads put it on the line.”
Dahlhauser, 31, said that Carlin Isles, the American known as “the fastest man in rugby” (who missed the Hong Kong competition after signing with a pro team in Scotland) has been “a huge YouTube hit and we love to see his speed. Any college athlete in the Southeastern United States today would tell you that rugby is what is driving a lot of cool club sports and a lot of great camaraderie and some amazing athletes. It’s a great thing to do.”
In both versions of rugby, the aim is to carry the ball over the goal line. That may sound familiar to American football fans, but there are no forward passes, only sideways or backward ones, and the ball must be forced to the ground for the score to count. A tackle doesn’t mean the play is over, there’s this moving pile of flesh called a scrum and two players can lift a teammate into the air to make a catch.
When the International Olympic Committee decided to readmit rugby, the recognition gave the sport a huge boost in the United States in terms of funding and television viewership.
Dominic Rumbles, head of communications for the International Rugby Board, last week accompanied the world cup trophy, the Webb Ellis Cup, to an Atlanta Hawks game.
“It surprised me how many people actually knew what it was and what rugby was,” Rumbles said. “You get a certain impression that perhaps not everyone in the States knows what the sport is, but it was really encouraging, the warmth towards it as well as the intrigue factor.”
USA Rugby also promoted the sport through school visits and an appearance on CNN.
“A few years ago, they were doing well to get 1,000 people to a test match (in the U.S.),” Rumbles said. “It’s incredible work they’re doing. USA Rugby knows how to grow the game in really the most competitive sports market in the world.
“They’ve got this young rookie rugby program for kids and there’s now more than a million children playing the game, which is great. And all of that has happened because of the Olympic effect.”
Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.