Rugby: The Next Big Thing?

Matt SavopoulosCorrespondent IJune 9, 2008

As Americans, we don't cotton too much to European sports. We've started to bring soccer into the mainstream a little bit, but that's the only transplant that's caught on with any degree of popularity. Cricket? Huge in India, not so much on this side of the Atlantic. Cycling remains little more than a novelty now that Lance Armstrong has departed from the public eye. Formula 1 is seen as the poor cousin of the all-powerful NASCAR.

But one game that could make the leap from niche appeal to mainstream glamour could be rugby, the forerunner of the hugely popular American football. Rugby, having an outpost on most college campuses in America, already possesses a strong interest base with both current and past ruggers. These core fans already do their best to spread word about the sport and would only redouble their efforts if they saw their sport begin to surface in the sports landscape.

Rugby as a sport has many of the characteristics we prize in a game.

Violence: imagine Shawne Merriman, running at full tilt, flattening an unsuspecting running back coming out of the back field for a swing pass. Now take away their pads and helmets, and you'll have something approaching the ferocity of a well-placed rugby tackle.

Elegance: think of Alexander Ovechkin splitting the defense and turning the corner to tuck home a goal, except he's on foot and evading eight tacklers instead of two stick checks.

Excitement: much like when Adrian Peterson has the football, on any play the backs could break through the defense for a long scoring run.

The United States is even approaching respectability at the game: we've qualified for the past three Rugby World Cups, and while they have yet to advance past pool play, have shown glimpses of brilliance in their attempts. The 2007 International Rugby Press Association Try of the Year was scored by an American, Takudzwa Ngwenya, who capped off an end-to-end transition play against the Springboks of South Africa by outrunning the 2007 international Player of the Year, Bryan Habana down the far wing.

The main check to rugby's growth seems to be a general disdain for the sport when compared to American football, and a reluctance to devote the time to learn the complexities of the rules. While it would be nearly impossible to upset the supremacy of the NFL in America, the two sports don't need to be viewed as rivals—indeed, the two neatly compliment each other, with rugby's free flowing and consistent action standing in contrast to the NFL's frequent strategical stoppages.

And if America can overcome their disdain for the maddeningly inconsistent offsides rule that is the bane of many an inexperienced soccer viewer, there is nothing in rugby that should deter the viewer.

If the national team can keep producing positive results, and the game continues to grow at the collegiate, youth, and what small professional level is present in the country, I could imagine a very bright future for rugby in the United States in the not-too-distant future.