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Rugby should soon grow in popularity in United States

October 4, 2013 Updated: October 4, 2013 at 7:52 am
photo - David Ramsey March 7, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
David Ramsey March 7, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

As rugby prepares to return to the Olympics in 2016 after a 92-year absence, America-first types will want to know this:

The United States reigns as the defending Olympic rugby champs.

It's true. Americans won gold in the last rugby competition in Paris in 1924, repeating their victory from Antwerp, Belgium, in 1920. After the American's rugged 1924 victory, French fans attacked American fans before storming the field and inspiring Olympic leaders to banish the sport.

But Americans thriving in rugby is not just ancient history. Todd Clever, Chris Wyles and Taku Ngwenya are stars in the professional leagues that thrive throughout the world. It's clear a new golden age for the sport is dawning in The Land of the Free.

I could see this awakening last week when I visited practice for the rugby club at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The club's players were running in the dark after being booted from their practice field in favor of a softball game. The club struggles for practice time under the lights because rugby is not sanctioned by the university.

Yet there was no complaining. The students are bound together by a devotion to a simple yet deceptively complex game. Rugby is popular in most of the world, including England, Japan and South Africa. It someday will rise to popularity in America.

Just ask Robert Bishop, a 32-year-old UCCS freshman. Bishop served in Afghanistan and Iraq before departing the Army as a staff sergeant. He's enjoying civilian life, especially his nights playing rugby.

"This is football without all the pomp and circumstance and all the pads," Bishop said. "It's very raw. I had never been a big fan of organized teams and playing sports until I found rugby.

"A lot of people look at it and see this violence, this mosh pit, but there are so many laws and there is such method to the madness. It's like a little chess match. There's so much strategy and there's no breaks and there's no huddles. I love the continuous play."

He's not alone. Rugby clubs flourish in Colorado Springs. The list includes clubs at Air Force Academy and Colorado College, along with a men's club, the Grizzlies, and high school and youth clubs.

The sport is developing a more serious aura in America. For years, rugby playing and serious drinking were connected in the American mindset the same way peanut butter and jelly are connected. This view is outdated, said Joe Feldman, one of the UCCS coaches.

It's no longer just about the booze.

"Guys are out playing rugby are just playing it because they love the game," Feldman said. "They love the people. They love the sport of rugby."

The rest of the sports world should take notice. Rugby once was popular in America. So was cricket. Baseball surpassed cricket, and football all but devoured rugby.

But the roots are there for a return to American dominance. In 1924, America walked into the Olympic gold-medal match as a severe underdog to France. After the Americans took an early 3-0 lead, French star Adolphe Jaurenguy was demolished by Lefty Rodgers. Jaurenguy was then rather theatrically removed from the field on a stretcher. (He later returned.) The savage, legal hit changed the tone of the match as the Americans romped to a 17-3 rout.

The crowd failed to appreciate the Americans' physical style, which players had learned from the then infant game of football. American fans in the Paris crowd were beaten with canes and 250 police officers were required to escort the American team off the field.

Rugby lost favor in America after it was removed from the Olympics. It will gain favor as it returns to the world's grandest sports stage. There's even talk of the United States hosting the rugby World Cup.

"I think rugby will become a sport that a lot of Americans will watch, just because it's physical and Americans in general like that," UCCS coach Riel Du Toit said.

He's right. Americans enjoy physical sports. Americans excel at physical sports.

A French team and crowd discovered this truth in 1924. The rugby world soon will discover this truth yet again.

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