Rugby culture beginning to grow in US

By on November 16, 2011

While American sports fans are in ecstasy with the recent Major League Baseball playoffs, as well as the ongoing NFL and NHL seasons, the rest of the world is recovering from their own excitement.

For 45 days fans were glued to their televisions and bar stools to watch the Rugby World Cup.

Here in Ireland, and the majority of Europe, rugby is everywhere. Billboards, sides of buses, commercials and of course the pubs.

Every few days faces turned green, white and orange in the country of the fourth ranked club in the world and that meant one thing.

Game day.

In America, the enthusiasm for the sport doesn’t exist for the average sports fan.

That flavor of team spirit is common for football fans, bitter baseball rivalries, and the annual battle between Quinnipiac and Yale for the Heroes Hat.

Rugby however, seems to be left out with few followers in the country and even less players.

Quinnipiac women’s rugby head coach Becky Carlson believes there is a lack of interest in the sport.

“USA Rugby spearheads the national teams and is charged with most of the initiatives in the country at all levels,” Carlson said. “The leadership is always European and their system is different than ours in terms of sports in general.”

Carlson is familiar with USA Rugby, having worked there as an Emerging Sports program manager.

She just completed her first season at Quinnipiac finishing with a respectable 3-6-1 record in the program’s inaugural season in Division I.

This year, Carlson and the Bobcats joined Eastern Illinois University as the only schools associated with NCAA rugby with its women’s teams, setting the steps to build NCAA recognized rugby programs.

But for club teams like New Blue Rugby and the rest of the U.S., rugby is not an NCAA recognized sport.

Instead, as Carlson says, USA Rugby organizes the competition for all age groups. Carlson believes the reason behind little NCAA support for the sport is because the NCAA sponsors men’s football.

Ryan Tilley, an American student from Washington College and current study abroad student at University College Cork in Cork, Ireland, was assigned by the UCC rugby club as the teams’ liaison.

Tilley, apart from playing recruiter, has played the sport for 13 years and plays center (centre in Ireland) for his club at school as well as with the UCC club.

“I don’t think America will ever get as interested in rugby as the rest of the world is,” Tilley said. “I feel that USA rugby is trying to make rugby seem like it’s football, which it isn’t, and they will never be able to take over football in America.”

What goes unnoticed by many is that the game of American football we play today derived from the rules and style of play found in rugby. American football to Europe, is like rugby is in the U.S.

“(Europe’s) emphasis is on sports like rugby, which is built into their culture the way American football is in to ours,” Carlson said.

Tilley’s teammate, Brian Kingston from Dublin, Ireland, plays out-half for UCC and said that Europeans find American football slow compared to rugby.

“The Rugby World Cup was important for many Irish people,” Kingston said. “We love supporting our country in any sport, but the Super Bowl isn’t big over here. Although, we all know when it’s on and there are some people that watch it for the spectacle that it is, we find American football too long and too ‘stop-start.’”

While the event was not as popular across the rest of the world, last year’s Super Bowl XLV was the most watched program ever in the U.S. with approximately 111 million viewers, according to Huffington Post.

Another member of UCC’s club is Mike McCarthy, from Tralee, Ireland, who plays hooker or forward for UCC.

“The Rugby World Cup is as big as it gets for rugby in Europe,” McCarthy said. “The Super Bowl is growing in interest year in, year out, but at a much slower rate than rugby in the U.S.”

Tilley has strong support for the game on both fronts and says his American schools’ club team, which lacks NCAA or USA Rugby recognition, is still a very serious team with coaches, long training sessions and dedication.

The UCC squad, which is funded by the university, is provided with 15 coaches and a private gym as well as team doctors and trainers.

“Playing in Ireland is a lot more competitive than playing in the States,” Tilley said. “Rugby is gaining a lot more popularity in America but we are still years behind Ireland.”

McCarthy thinks it isn’t the lack of association to the NCAA but a different factor that hinders the sports popularity.

“From my understanding, American sports media doesn’t give rugby enough coverage. Sports networks in the states have a preoccupation with national sports like the NFL and MLB.,” McCarthy said. “I think America is a growing rugby country. They have all the raw materials and have shown in the past that they can excel in international sports, like soccer for example.”

With Quinnipiac joining Eastern Illinois this past fall, the two schools have begun to set the foundation of growth for the sport of rugby in the U.S.

On Sept. 18, the two teams played each other for the first ever meeting between two Division I teams.

Anna Brundage/Chronicle

It was an emotional setting as the game was representative of the rising interest of rugby in the U.S.

“It was breaking me up a little bit when I was listening to the National Anthem because I remember being a player and my very last game that I played for Eastern,” Carlson said about that game.

“[Assistant] coach [Michelle] Reed (who also played at EIU) and I are listening to the national anthem and we’re both coaching the program that’s coaching the first NCAA game. It was pretty surreal.”

While Carlson’s Bobcats played the Panthers three times, the American team was unable to advance past group play in the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The U.S. went 1-3 in this year’s Rugby World Cup, which is a step up from their 0-4 record in 2007. While it is only a one-win differential, the 1-3 record in this years tournament is a strong improvement, and a good sign for the teams’ future.

“I think if they promoted the sport to be a game of finesse, it might be able to take off,” Tilley said. “But as long as they keep promoting rugby as a sport similar to football, I don’t think it will grow as much as it should.”

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Year: 2013
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