As any trivia fan knows, the USA are the reigning Olympic rugby champions, having won gold in Paris in 1924 – as, indeed, they did in Antwerp in 1920. In 2016, rugby, in its seven-a-side form, will return to the Olympics in Rio. Subject to qualification, the USA's men and women will defend the crown. It isn't entirely outlandish to give both teams a chance of doing so successfully, given the sense of growth in US rugby that is being fueled by the sevens game. Along with the rise of American football, expulsion from the Games (due to the violence of the matches and a pitch invasion by aggrieved French fans), sealed rugby's fate in the States. For the rest of the 20th century the US game remained, by and large, gridiron's slightly embarrassing British cousin – a pursuit for students and graduates in search of a runaround, a few hits and a companionable drink resulting in what the art critic Brian Sewell calls – approvingly, surprisingly – the corporate vomit.
As any trivia fan knows, the USA are the reigning Olympic rugby champions, having won gold in Paris in 1924 – as, indeed, they did in Antwerp in 1920. In 2016, rugby, in its seven-a-side form, will return to the Olympics in Rio. Subject to qualification, the USA's men and women will defend the crown. It isn't entirely outlandish to give both teams a chance of doing so successfully, given the sense of growth in US rugby that is being fueled by the sevens game.
Along with the rise of American football, expulsion from the Games (due to the violence of the matches and a pitch invasion by aggrieved French fans), sealed rugby's fate in the States. For the rest of the 20th century the US game remained, by and large, gridiron's slightly embarrassing British cousin – a pursuit for students and graduates in search of a runaround, a few hits and a companionable drink resulting in what the art critic Brian Sewell calls – approvingly, surprisingly – the corporate vomit.
Rugby's return to the Olympics, however, has coincided with increasing American professionalism. Fielding a number of players employed overseas – the flanker Todd Clever in Japan, full-back Chris Wyles with Saracens in London and the wing Taku Ngwenya with Biarritz in France, for three – the men's 15-a-side national team, the Eagles, have improved. At the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand they competed with Italy and Ireland and earned a 13-6 victory over Russia. In Houston last year, a record crowd of more than 17,000 saw the Italians pushed – if at the cost of two American red cards – to a 30-10 win. Next year, the US (and Canada) will enter the Pacific Nations Cup, playing against Fiji, Tonga and Japan.
The greatest leap forward, however, came in January, when USA Rugby announced the names of 32 players – 16 men and 16 women – who will work full time at the US Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California with the 2016 Games in mind. Professional rugby has arrived in the US.
Nigel Melville, the former England captain who is now chief executive of USA Rugby, explains the benefits to the selected players and the national game:
They can train full time. They get food and training on site, health-insurance help, all that kind of thing. That's been a huge help for us and it is, however you look at it, the first time that American rugby has been able to put people into a full-time environment. This young group of players are going to get stronger and better and we can continue to develop the programme.
Melville – who arrived at USA Rugby HQ in Boulder, Colorado, in 2006 – is quick to point out that Olympic inclusion does not necessarily bring with it millions of dollars of corporate sponsorship (or indeed any dollars at all from the US government). Nonetheless, he expects it to have a beneficial effect on American rugby, both seven- and 15-a-side.
"In America," he says, "everyone has a certain amount of respect for Olympic athletes. They are seen to have a certain purity that the NFL and NBA and MLB don't offer. So being an Olympic sport gives you a credibility that American rugby has certainly not had before. We say we're an Olympic sport and people sit up and say, 'Oh, really? This isn't what we thought it was. We thought it was a badly behaved, college, drinking-type party game.' Well, no – globally rugby is now a professional game, with great athletes playing it. And Americans, through seven-a-side rugby, are seeing this."
A lot of them – some perhaps connected to Play Rugby USA, a ground-breaking non-profit that has introduced tag or tackle sevens to thousands of children in schools in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere – are seeing it through this YouTube video, which features a number of superb tries from this season's World Sevens circuit. The scorer of said tries is Carlin Isles, a former running back at Ashland University who became a top-40 US sprinter. Having missed qualification for the 2012 Olympics – despite having a (wind-assisted) personal best, of 10.13 seconds, that would have taken him to the semi-finals in London – Isles decided on a change of tack.
"Carlin saw sevens online," says Melville, "did some research, texted me and said: 'Can we talk about this?' I got him into some training. And there you go. Now, as a result of his viral YouTube video, we've ended up with agents and God knows what all chasing him and saying, 'Come and earn some money in 15s.'"
To European eyes, Isles seems to be the fulfillment of an old rugby truism, that if American rugby ever managed to harness one in a hundred of the phenomenal athletes who play football or basketball or run or throw at college but do not then make it professionally, even New Zealand's All Blacks and the Springboks of South Africa wouldn't be able to live with the Eagles. Another former football player, the Brown linebacker (and briefly Miami Dolphins safety) Miles Craigwell, has starred for the US sevens squad but it is Isles who has caused a splash offshore – Leinster of Ireland, European champions three times in the past four years, are among the teams rumoured to be interested.
"Maybe 15s isn't suited for him," Melville says, adding the necessary qualifier that Isles, who had only been playing rugby for a couple of months when he made his US sevens debut, like the vast majority of his countrymen "doesn't even know what 15s is".
"He knows there's money involved in it, though. So we'll see how he develops. But in turn, his story gets other people looking and thinking, 'What's this?'"
A million-dollar game?
If there is money in rugby 15s now, in Japan and France and in the southern-hemisphere Super Rugby competition that is reportedly considering a North American franchise – there may soon be money in sevens as well.
"Now [rugby is] into the Games in Rio in 2016," says Melville, "we anticipate that with success, our funding will increase. We are getting more media attention than ever before as a result. We get NBC, Universal, some ESPN. What that does is show people the sport, and then they are perhaps more inclined to decide to have a go."
Sevens being a faster, looser version of the 15-a-side game seen in the European Six Nations and the southern-hemisphere Rugby Championship – the rules are the same but matches are played on a full-sized pitch, emphasising the need for skill, evasion and speed – it generates an excitement that plays well with non-traditional audiences. Sevens has been part of the Commonwealth Games since 1998, this year's World Cup will be staged in Russia and Hong Kong hosts the most loved annual tournament. Sevens is a global game – more so than 15s, in which 20 teams compete at a quadrennial World Cup but fewer than half can genuinely hope to win it. According to Melville:
You would think that the biggest impact of the Olympic inclusion would come after Rio. It's going to generate more enthusiasm and drama. Obviously we have to compete and qualify, but either way rugby is going to be in the Olympics. It's not going to go away. It will be sevens rugby, but that in itself is a track for 15s. In the US, sevens is seen as a really serious option, because a lot of people are motivated to play it and will now have a dream to do so in the Olympic Games."
For the American men and women, then, the first two weeks of February 2013 assumed immense importance. The women's Houston Sevens, part of the International Rugby Board's Women's World Series and held on 1-2 February, was won by England, though the USA pushed them in the final. England also won the men's Wellington Sevens the same weekend, after drawing with the USA in pool play. For the American men, the next assignment is the USA Sevens, which will be played at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The US has staged a men's World Sevens tournament since 2004, moving to Vegas in 2010 after operating out of the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles and Petco Park, the home of the San Diego Padres. Under tournament director Dan Lyle – a college tight end who turned down the Minnesota Vikings, played 45 times for the Eagles and excelled, under the inevitable nickname "Captain America", in England – crowds have increased, to the point where more than 64,000 people attended over three days in 2012. The home team has, in step, become more competitive – if the US have not had quite the success of another non-traditional power, Kenya, who are running a startling second in the World Series standings, they are improving rapidly under coach Alex Magleby.
Melville, of course, sees the USA 7s, which will be shown live on NBC, as another key event in the attempt to alert America to rugby. "Any sevens tournament on TV and accessible on the web is important to us," he says, adding that "through YouTube and anything we can find, we're trying to increase access to it". In the summer, however, America's road to Rio will take an unexpected turn – back to LA.
The Grand Prix Sevens, which will be staged at the Home Depot Center on 12, 13 and 14 July, will feature teams sent by nations around the world, though it will not be a World Sevens event, featuring national teams. It is the brainchild of Bill Tatham, one of the men behind the short-lived XFL, and it's aim – to be world rugby's first million-dollar, winner-takes-all tournament – suggests that the belief that America can learn to love rugby is now held outside the traditional game. The tournament is scheduled to be broadcast on the NFL Network.
"Bill is essentially an entertainments guy," says Melville. "He saw rugby sevens and thought it was a great opportunity and he has been looking at it over the years. He had a sanction with USA Rugby to deliver a sevens tournament where you'd play for prize money. And so it became the million-dollar, winner-takes-all sevens event. When you hear that, you might say: 'Only in America.'
"There's huge interest. It's a standalone, it's interesting, it could be very good for the game. It's one of those things – it smacks a bit of reality shows and razzamatazz and entertainment."
The New Zealand Rugby Union, which fields the world champions at 15s and the world-leaders in sevens, has committed to sending a team. If the Kiwis are taking American rugby seriously, as rugby heads back to the Olympic Games, the rest of the world should too.