Could rugby union take off in the US?

Bryan Habana and Michael Vick

A new television deal means millions of Americans will be able to watch their rugby union team at the World Cup later this week. As the sport enjoys a surge of popularity, could this be the moment when the land of American football takes rugby to its heart?

The US love affair with an odd-shaped ball is very well known.

Former England star Ben Cohen

Ben Cohen

In my view there is just as much passion for rugby in the US as in the UK. That passion, though, seems to be shared by a minority compared with football, baseball and basketball.

We can see in the Churchill Cup and World Cup that The Eagles are building and they are not easy to play against. Americans like to do well!

I have experienced US rugby at different levels through the gay/gay-friendly clubs I visited to promote my anti-homophobia charity Stand Up.

There is no reason at all why rugby can't make it in the States. Interest is fast growing. If they can grab the concept of rugby it would be a major step forward and they could be world-beaters.

American football currently fills the sports pages as the new NFL season gets under way, crowding out any mention of the rugby union World Cup in New Zealand, which starts on Friday.

But away from the newspaper headlines, there are the first signs that rugby is starting to take root in the land of gridiron.

On school playing fields, college campuses and in deprived inner cities, more and more young Americans are taking up the sport.

According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association (SGMA), which conducts an annual survey of sporting participation in 120 different sports, it is the fastest growing team sport in the US.

In 2010, the number of people playing the full-contact version of the game grew from 750,000 to 1.13m, says SGMA executive Mike May, with women making up a third of the total.

"It's like a snowball rolling downhill. I never thought I would ever see it being played on a high school campus, which I did two years ago here in Florida. It was amazing."

Rugby and American football compared

As well as increased participation, there are other ways that rugby is making its mark.

At 13:00 ET on Sunday, rugby fans in the US will be able to turn on a mainstream television network, NBC Sports, and watch the USA Eagles, ranked 18th in the world, take on Ireland in their opening World Cup match. It's a delayed broadcast because of the time difference.

The sport in the US could also benefit from the inclusion of seven-a-side rugby in the Olympic Games in 2016. The US is, after all, the last country to win a gold medal at rugby, in 1924, the last time the sport featured in the Olympics.

All these elements suggest rugby could start to gain some traction, says Nigel Melville, the former England international who is now chief executive of the sport's national governing body, USA Rugby.

Rugby gives the world gridiron

Old American football

American football came from rugby and soccer, says Pete Fierle of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Ohio.

"Our game wasn't invented, it evolved. It was very much a running game in the early days and if you look at a football from the early 1890s (above), it resembles a rugby ball.

"The pass wasn't legalised until 1906 so the ball then became more conducive to throwing."

The deal with NBC is a huge step forward, he says, coming at a time when the sport's popularity among young people has never been greater.

"We're experiencing incredible growth in our youth, high school and college programmes and that's been our strategy, to build the foundation of the game and get the ball into the hands of kids at an early age."

Traditionally, interest in rugby has centred on Irish communities in the north-east and the Polynesian migrants on the Pacific coast, but that's changing.

In the last three years, half a million six to 12-year-olds across the US have taken up so-called Rookie Rugby, which is a version of the sport without the tackling, says Mr Melville.

And older age groups have flocked to the full contact form of the sport too, with USA Rugby membership increasing by 40% since 2007.

The appeal, he believes, lies in both the physical challenge and the spirit in which the game is played.

"I think in the game itself, they enjoy the athleticism and the contact. And they've found it intriguing that you would sit down with opponents after the game and have dinner with them.

"Having that respect for your opponents, on and off the field, and for officials - is not normal in professional sport."

The World Cup is a big moment, says Mr Melville, but the next step is to try and establish a full-time residential training facility for the top players, starting with the seven-a-side specialists who will play in the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

Rugby in inner-city LA

Rugby in Los Angeles

A scheme founded by ex-pro Stuart Krohn provides rugby to thousands of youngsters in deprived South Los Angeles, formerly known as South Central.

Training and matches make up about 10 hours a week, but participation is dependent on good academic performance.

One advantage over American football is that rugby encourages decision-making on the pitch, which is empowering and hugely beneficial, says Krohn.

"Rugby makes a huge difference by exposing them to something they've never been exposed to. For people whose perspective has been closed, the world becomes their oyster."

A professional league based in the US is further off, he says, but he's optimistic it can happen.

"I've seen in 30 years what soccer has achieved over here. We can achieve that quicker because of social media and electronic media. There are huge opportunities for rugby in America.

"We want to make it a mainstream sport and at the same time, maintain the spirit of the game, which makes it unique."

Inevitably, comparisons will be made with American football, which is recovering from a summer of scandal engulfing college football. Rugby hopes to benefit from the production line of big, mobile footballers who excel up to college level and then find they can't get a professional contract.

But will the physical nature of rugby put parents off? Head injuries have become a major concern in American football in recent years, with retired players taking legal action against the National Football League.

Parents fear rugby is football without the protection, says Mr May of the SGMA.

"There's a misconception that because people don't have pads, it's more physically demanding and dangerous, but there are fewer injuries than in football. Once parents see a rugby game played, they're OK with it.

I chose rugby because I was big for my age and soccer didn't have enough contact for me. My science teacher was very enthusiastic and convinced me to join. I had no idea what rugby was but when I heard there was tackling, I was sold.

I love the atmosphere rugby creates. There is a lot of interaction on the pitch so communication on and off the field is imperative. Rugby promotes teamwork, respect and self-motivation.

It has changed my life dramatically. I have learned how to interact with people in order to get a task completed. I am more comfortable and confident with my body and mindset because rugby is all about giving nothing but your best.

I feel more active and adventurous too. My trips to Hong Kong and South Africa [with the team] have taught me to not only appreciate culture but appreciate the many privileges I take for granted at home.

"I played rugby for 20 years and there's no way I could have played American football for that period with the same intensity and lasted like I did. Unless you have the ball, you don't receive much contact."

There is also a cultural barrier, and it starts with the name, he says.

"People are a little bit turned off by the word 'rugby' because there's no 'ball' in it, like basketball, football, baseball and softball. And for the sport to be named after a school? That's bizarre, but most people don't know that.

"If you told them the story of William Webb Ellis and Rugby School and the 1800s, they'd go 'Huh?' But I remind them that rugby is football's father."

Indeed, it is rugby's greatest legacy in the US to have inadvertently given the world gridiron in the 19th Century - American football was developed from early variations of rugby.

So like two long-estranged brothers, the two sports could be about to cohabit again after a long separation.

But there's plenty of room for both. Football fans could turn to rugby, which is a summer sport in the US, in the off-season.

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