Rugby in America

With rugby becoming more of a national sport in the USA, we take a look at its growth and its history in the country.


By Michael Kerr
14th October 2016
By Michael Kerr
14th October 2016

The numbers of registered players in the USA is continuing to grow at an exceptional rate, not just at the senior level, but throughout the high-school and college levels as well.

In fact, the country now has more registered players than two Six Nations sides – Wales and Scotland.

This is a far cry from its early history when rugby was banned in the 1860’s at Harvard and Yale, as it was considered too dangerous! This may explain the growth of another contact sport that has its roots in Rugby – American Football. However, the first recorded game to be played was in 1874 between the Harvard and McGill Universities. The country actually won gold at the Olympics in 1920 and, at Rugby’s last inclusion in its full form, in 1924. It wasn’t until 50 years later that rugby began to emerge as a popular sport, however, following the creation of USA Rugby (formerly the USA RFU).

One of the main reasons for this was the popularity of American Football, which was also being played and adjusted in the late 1800’s. Today it is arguably America’s most popular sport, though outside of professional and college level, there is little to no chance of playing the sport in an organised fashion – which is potentially why we see more players trying rugby if they do not gain college scholarships.

As Rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes, it is not unimaginable to see linemen in the front row and wide receivers on the wing or in the centres – and has anyone noticed the leadership and control similarities between the quarterback and fly-half positions? (I wonder if Peyton Manning every tried a punt?) 

There are also many translatable skills from American Football – predominately the carrying and tackling aspects – and the prospect of playing both ‘offence’ and ‘defence’ will no doubt be inviting to many American Football players that are new to the sport. In fact, the college level accounts for the large majority of registered players in the USA; in both the men and women’s game.

It is believed that this growth was also fuelled by the announcement of Rugby’s inclusion at the 2016 Olympics in Rio. With the seven’s format of the game already hugely popular – 60,000 spectators attending the Las Vegas leg of the World Series every year – it is no surprise that the speed and skill of seven’s has been the defining factor in America’s reintroduction to the sport. It also helps they have the ‘fastest man in Rugby’ tearing it up every weekend in Carlin Isles!

In the 15’s version of the sport – the USA has been a constant on the international stage since the inaugural World Cup in 1987; in fact they have participated in every World Cup except the 1995 tournament in the men’s game, and have made it to the Quarter Final in every Women’s World Cup. This growth can also be seen in the number of spectators who watched the USA play New Zealand in a one-off match, as well as the first ever Premiership fixture played overseas – London Irish vs Saracens at New Jersey’s Red Bull Stadium.

Having had a seasoned Rugby brain like that of former England Captain Nigel Melville at the helm, it was only a matter of time before a professional league was developed in the United States. Featuring several players of international calibre – including legends such as Mils Muliaina, Mirco Bergamasco and Pedrie Wannenburg – the PRO Rugby league was contested for the first time this year. After an inaugural win for the Denver Stampede, the league is looking to expand for 2017. A successor of the premier amateur competition, the Rugby Super League, which operated between 1997 and 2012, the PRO Rugby competition will be looking to add a similar number of teams from that competition to provide a testing and development ground for international calibre players.

The creation of this league will also help the USA’s chances in the revamped Americas Rugby Championship. Based on the structure of the Six Nations, this tournament is supported by World Rugby and has test match status in all fixtures (despite the Argentinean side being essentially their second-string team).

The USA is also a favourite to host the 2027 World Cup, with hopes that player numbers and spectator interest will be at a high by that point in time – which certainly seems to be the case!

It is only a matter of time until the USA catches up with the rest of the world now that it has its own professional league – and with the development of rugby worldwide a key component of World Rugby’s plans, have they perhaps awoken a sleeping giant that may one day challenge the mighty All Blacks for bragging rights?

Only time will tell; and I for one will be watching with great expectation, and trepidation!

The Rugby Magazine

Filed under: Spirit Of The Game, USA
Written by: Michael Kerr
Follow: @michaelj_kerr · @therugbymag

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