Rugby World Cup 2011 has begun, and although some in the US are unaware, much of the rest of the globe is glued to the third highest internationally watched sporting event. Held every four years, it is currently being hosted by New Zealand, a nation fanatical about the sport and generally recognized as a place where the game has been honed to new heights. The smooth interplay along the New Zealand back line and immense physicality at the breakdown makes them extremely entertaining to watch. Given this, and their home advantage, they are placed as favorites to win the tournament. However, nothing can ever be taken for granted in sports, leaving 19 other nations eagerly following the performance of their respective teams; there is no reason why the American audiences should not be joining them. The US Eagles rugby team is proudly represented in the group stages, having denied Ireland a precious bonus point and also having produced a firm victory over their perennial Russian rivals. They now go on to play Italy and Australia, two tough teams. Judging on their form to date, these are games in which the US will not roll over.
Internationally, rugby is one of the world’s fasted growing sports. Its popularity can only rise with rugby sevens re-joining the 2016 Olympics. Curiously, the last rugby team to win gold at the Olympics was the US in 1924. For those few of you vaguely familiar of the sport, rugby union was allegedly invented in Rugby School, England, over 150 years ago, when a player, with complete disregard for the rules of soccer, picked up the ball and started running with it. The sport has progressed, slightly, since those early days to its modern iteration where forward passing is illegal, hence the team moving up the field by kicking or running with the ball. Teams have 15 players apiece and games are 80 minutes long with two 40-minute halves. No timeouts; stoppage of time are for serious injuries only. It combines much of the physicality of football with the endurance of soccer; each player covers on average 4 miles and makes 20 – 40 tackles per game. Needless to say, the sport can be grueling, but this helps breed the respect and camaraderie that makes it so enjoyable to watch and play, leading rugby to be a called “a game for thugs, played by gentlemen.”
The Eagles spirited performances in this World Cup go a long way to show how far the rugby in the US has progressed in the past few years. Their skill and dedication is testament to the growing pool of rugby talent in the US, as more people play the sport. Credit is especially due to the Eagles players when faced with the fact that many of them are amateur, some having taken unpaid leave in order to play against the professional teams of Ireland, Italy, and Australia.
However, figures show that as many people now play rugby in the USA as in Australia, a world power house of the sport. It is this continued growth and increased investment at the grassroots level that will see the US compete and beat the tier one rugby nations. An example close to home is the Mines Rugby teams who have performed exceptionally in the past few years, having placed thirteenth at nationals in 2009.
With the growing stature of rugby in the US and increased professionalism, in time the Eagles should rise to the top tier of rugby nations. And who knows, in four years we may even see the eagles soar at the Rugby World Cup stage.