Olympic Rugby – Is it Time for USA Rugby to Make a Choice?

It appears that with the start of the New Year, people have started developing lists of what they think the new rugby year should hold. And I’m going to do the same thing, why not at this point in the year?

Sevens Rugby has long been a favorite of mine. It was the first type of rugby I played in college and it has always had a soft spot in my heart. For those readers unfamiliar with sevens rugby, the quick answer is – seven players on each team, seven minute halves and usually higher scoring than many rugby games. Another benefit of this kind of rugby is that fewer athletes are needed to field a full team and schools, regions, etc. that aren’t traditional rugby powerhouses can be quite successful.

This is one of the reasons that Sevens Rugby was selected to be part of the 2016 Olympic Games. And why from here on out I’m going to be referring to Sevens as “Olympic Rugby.” (It’s a branding thing, it sounds better to call it “Olympic” than “Sevens”) And it’s important to the United States, because we’re the back-to-back Olympic rugby champions, back in 1920 and 24.

And with the recent decision by the English RFU to restructure how rugby is run in England, and the calls over and over and over ad nauseum by the U.S. Internet Rugby Community (you know who you are) to completely tear down rugby in the U.S and rebuild in in their image, here is what I would do to change up American Rugby – take the next 6 years to focus on making us more competitive at the Olympics.

Now, why the focus on the Olympics? Because Olympic Rugby is still the best, and fastest, way for America to build a team to compete on the world stage, and because the Olympics still have some allure to the American sporting public for a sport like Rugby. Much more so than the Rugby World Cup, where the U.S. will once again be torn apart on the field by the powers of the Rugby Universe.

Now since the United States rugby-sphere only has a limited amount of resources and players. I know this is blasphemy to state out loud, but I think for the next five years those resources need to be adjusted to provide more scouting (by which I mean any scouting) and financial resources to the creation of a kick ass Olympic Rugby team. So for some of the reasons why I think Olympic Rugby is the route to follow, I offer a few points of discussion.

1. Olympic Rugby is faster, more athletic and harder hitting than traditional rugby – which would be interesting to American Sports fans. There are elements of the 15-a-side rugby game that people who have played rugby for years still don’t always understand. Which leads to the next point…

2. Because of the speed of the game, and the fact that there are usually fewer penalties and rules to explain to potential fans, Olympic Rugby has more potential quick attraction to those U.S. Fans.

3. Think of Olympic Rugby as that “gateway drug” to get people interested in regular Rugby Union or Rugby League.

4. More teams can be involved in local tournaments, since the matches consist of seven-minute halves.

5. Limited resources can be better deployed in focusing on a smaller team – see below.

The United States rugby community is going to have to make a tough decision in the near future, with the Olympics on the horizon, and the development of a collegiate sevens tournament in the U.S., and the popularity of Olympic Rugby in the rest of the world, USA Rugby is going to have to select where to place their scant resources. As a rugby community we can’t continue to try to be all things to all people. We have to look at the best opportunity for team marketing to grow the sport, and unfortunately for the 15-a-side game, that’s probably going to be Olympic Rugby for the next generation or so.

There’s a movement out there, primarily by people who aren’t happy that the men’s National Team is no longer being run out of Berkeley, to take as many resources out of the men’s national team and hand them out to the local high school and youth rugby, which places resources back in their hands. There’s a push out there to keep the men’s team together as much as possible and continue to limp through games with only a handful of practice sessions before each international match. And of course there’s women’s rugby, which on a collegiate level is being investigated by the NCAA as a potential new sport.

The Olympic games are the key, working in tandem with a growing youth and high school game. The Olympics gives the U.S. more of a platform to grow, if they are correctly marketed to, than any of the above ideas. While there’s a 4-year window in between each games, the Olympics always pull down incredible viewer numbers, with the NBC family of networks dedicating up to 4 to 6 stations showing various games in the last Olympics. Plus USA Rugby already has an advantage with NBC Sports, as NBC is showing the entire USA Sevens International Tournament in a few weeks, plus footage from the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and collegiate sevens rugby. There are plenty of chances to develop a greater groundswell of rugby in the U.S. in between the Olympics. Which I’ll be addressing in future posts.

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