It’s The Biggest Sporting Event Of The Year—Does Anyone Here Care: The Rugby Union World Cup & the United States

By Benjamin Dettmar

Across much of northern and western Europe, southern Africa, the Pacific, and parts of South America eyes are peeled to the biggest sporting event of 2015—the Rugby Union World Cup [1]. The 7-week event will conclude on October 31 when the winner of the 8th edition of the tournament will be decided at England’s iconic Twickenham Stadium in London. The Rugby World Cup claims to be the third largest sporting event in the world (after the Summer Olympics and the soccer World Cup [2]) but very few in the US will get to see the drama of the tournament or indeed will even know that the event is happening. This is a shame as the US has a richer rugby history than most people realize and the sport—full of big hits, high scoring games, and non-stop action—would seem to be tailor made for an American audience.[3]

America’s Rugby Heritage

Rugby union history in the US goes back to the nineteenth century. Like most sports that were adapted from European roots, a version of rugby was played on the east coast of America, especially in colleges, by those who had memories of the sport in the old world. These games were sometimes unrecognizable from the form of rugby we see today but most involved attempting to somehow get an oval shaped ball into an area of the field designated as the goal. Rules varied, as did the number of players, and the rules for scoring points; but it was from these beginnings that the sport of rugby and indeed the sport of football evolved in the US. The first recognized game of rugby union in the US was between Harvard University and McGill University in 1874. Harvard and McGill agreed to play two games in May 1874; the first under “Harvard Rules”, essentially the “Boston Game” that players at Harvard were accustomed to (a game much more similar to contemporary football and soccer than rugby). The second was played under “McGill Rules,” a stricter version of the sport that is more akin to contemporary rugby union. Harvard easily won the “Boston Game” and held the Canadians to a 0:0 tie in the “McGill Rules” game. Thus, May 1874 saw the first recognized game of rugby union in the US, the first international game of rugby union outside of Europe, and also saw Harvard adopt an amalgamated version of both sports (the “Boston Game” used a round ball until the Harvard players found they preferred playing with an oval ball) that would evolve into what we recognize today as the football of the NFL.

Harvard vs. McGill, 1874. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Harvard vs. McGill, 1874. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Rugby would go on to have relative success in the first few decades of the twentieth century. The US rugby team famously won gold in the Rugby Union events at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp and the 1924 Olympics in Paris. Rugby has not been played in the Olympics since 1924 (it will make a return of sorts in 2016) so the US can claim to have held the Olympic gold for nearly 100 years. Colleges on both the east and west coasts also continued to play the game to a high level and rugby playing nations such as Australia and New Zealand (the All Blacks) would regularly tour the US and Canada. The Stanford University team even beat the heavily favored Australian national team in 1912.

In his article in the San Francisco Call, William Unmack praised the Stanford team for beating the Australians at their own game and gave special tribute to the Stanford fans.

The game was wonderful from start to finish, but the second half capped the climax. The bleachers are often aroused by high class playing, but never in the history of the game here, except at the Stanford-California games, have the bleacherites shown such enthusiasm as was seen at Stanford yesterday….Stanford played the Australians at their own game and found out the truth of the paradox that ‘a team’s best defense is its attack’. Attack it was, and the way the Stanford back field got in and started out their splendid passing rallies was something that surprised the Australians….No matter which way you look at it, the season has been without a parallel in Rugby circles in the country and it will be a long time before we see Rugby to surpass, let alone equal, the great series of games that has been played here.

Headline and image from Stanford’s famous victory over the Australians in 1912. The San Francisco Call October 17, 1912.

Headline and image from Stanford’s famous victory over the Australians in 1912. The San Francisco Call October 17, 1912.

Unmack’s closing words were prophetic as a tour the following year by the New Zealand All Blacks is often credited with the death of rugby in the US. The All Blacks swept all before them playing and winning 12 games whilst scoring 457 points and conceding only 1 try. In their final game the All Blacks played the US national team in front of 10,000 fans at Berkeley and won easily 51:3.

Football would go on to dominate the sport space of the United States and after the first few decades of the twentieth century rugby largely faded from public consciousness across the US.

The US At The Rugby World Cup

The first Rugby World Cup was played in Australia and New Zealand in 1987. The US has competed at every World Cup except for 1995 in South Africa (The Invictus World Cup) when they were narrowly defeated by Argentina in qualifying. The Eagles, as they are known, have had modest success. The team has won a total of 3 games, beating Japan in 1987 and again in 2003, and defeating the Russians in 2011. US rugby fans (and new converts to the sport) should probably not get their hopes high for US success in this year’s World Cup. The US find themselves in Pool B with perennial powerhouse, and two time winner, South Africa; 1991 semi-finalists Scotland; a strong Samoa team; and Japan, a team eager for success before they host the next tournament in 2019.

Australia vs. United States at 2011 Rugby World Cup. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Australia vs. United States at 2011 Rugby World Cup. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Before the World Cup began the perceived knowledge was that realistically the Eagles have little chance of defeating South Africa and Scotland—they have yet to defeat either nation—but the fixtures against Samoa and Japan offer a glimmer of hope.

The US played Samoa in the first game of the tournament with high hopes of building on a recent result in the Pacific Nations Cup when they were narrowly defeated in a 5 point loss by the Samoans. The US Eagles again came close to defeating the Pacific islanders but lost 25:16.

The final game of Pool B is to be played in the heartland of English Rugby Union in Gloucester on October 11 and sees the US play Japan in a game with huge ramifications for both nations. This is the game that the US team would have earmarked as a must-win. The game has taken on an extra level of nuance with Japan’s shock victory over South Africa. A failure to beat the Japanese will be seen as a definite step backwards for the US. Similarly, the Japanese, who before their victory over the Springboks had only ever won 1 game in the tournament (defeating Zimbabwe in 1991), will be looking for another statement victory to carry them into their home tournament in 2019.

Tier 1 & Tier 2 Rugby Nations

Perhaps of greater interest is how the likes of the US and Japan do against the traditional powerhouse Rugby nations and how the gap between so-called Tier 1 sides and Tier 2 sides has narrowed in recent years.[4] The 10 Tier 1 rugby nations are the European teams who comprise the annual Six Nations tournament (England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, and Wales) and the 4 southern hemisphere teams who play in the annual Rugby Championship (Argentina, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). The Tier 2 rugby nations include Canada, Uruguay, and the US from the Americas; the Pacific island nations of Fiji, Japan, Samoa, and Tonga; and the European nations of Georgia, Portugal, Romania, Russia, and Spain.

Tier 2 nations have had some success against the top teams but until 2015 this has exclusively been the Pacific Island nations of Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga—nations where rugby union is the national sport. Samoa beat Wales in 1991[5] and 1999 and beat the Italians and the Argentinians in 1995. Fiji beat Argentina in 1987 and Wales in 2007, and Tonga beat Italy in 1999 and eventual finalists France in 2011. The Japanese victory over South Africa in 2015 offers great hope to Tier 2 nations and it will be fascinating to see if this is the start of a new dawn of competitive international rugby.

These successes show that upsets can and indeed do happen, and if we analyze all the games between Tier 1 nations and Tier 2 nations at the Rugby World Cup we see that the margin of victory has fluctuated over the years. The following tables breaks down the average margin of victories of Tier 1 nations over Tier 2 nations in the Rugby World Cup from 1987–2011 and highlight the number of victories Tier 2 nations have had in the tournament.

Some of this data comes from Mike Henson’s excellent BBC Sport article—although I disagree with some of his figures.

Some of this data comes from Mike Henson’s excellent BBC Sport article—although I disagree with some of his figures.

A quick analysis of this data shows that since rugby union became professional, after the 1995 World Cup, it has proven slightly more difficult for the Tier 2 nations to compete with the Tier 1 Nations.[6] Tonga’s upset of France in 2011, and Japan’s upset of South Africa, slightly paper over the fact that the Tier 1 teams—with professional leagues, full-time coaching, rich TV contracts, and better week to week competition are getting stronger and the number of victories per World Cup of Tier 2 nations are falling whilst the margin of victory for Tier 1 nations is increasing.

The only teams to win the World Cup are Australia (1991, 1999), England (2003), New Zealand (1987, 2011), and South Africa (1995, 2007). Indeed no Tier 2 nation has ever reached the semi-final of a competition. There is however hope for the Tier 2 rugby teams.

The Future of Tier 2 Rugby Nations

The Pacific Islanders have long maligned the practice of many of their best players defecting to Tier 1 Nations such as New Zealand and, to a lesser extent, other Tier 1 nations such as England and Wales, and even other Tier 2 Nations such as the US. Players will leave home at a young age in an effort to play professional rugby, earn residency, and eventually can end up playing for a different country to that of their birth. The New Zealand squad for the 2015 World Cup for example features Jerome Kaino born in American Samoa, Malakai Fekitoa born in Tonga, and Waisake Naholo born in Fiji. Long the most infamous culprits at exploiting rugby’s residency rules, the New Zealanders are not the worst offenders at the 2015 tournament. The Pacific Island nations seem to be turning the tables—Samoa have 13 New Zealand born players in their squad whilst Tonga have 9 New Zealand born players among their 12 non-Tongan born squad. European nations have also learned to finagle the rules with the Welsh and Scottish both having 11 non-native born players.

The practice of poaching players hurts all levels of the game. There is a strong opinion across world rugby that a nation like Samoa, who has a rich rugby history but has been eliminated at the group stage of the last 3 tournaments, could be a real force if its elite players did not need to move elsewhere to play professional rugby. Similarly, players such as Scottish international Sean Maitland, the “Kilted Kiwi”, are often blamed for leaving their native country and trying to qualify for residency elsewhere in an effort to play international rugby for a country where the competition is not as strong.

The International Rugby Board (IRB) has talked about tightening up qualification rules for international players. The globalization of the modern game means players are now making far more money playing club rugby than international rugby. This will perhaps lead to less players attempting to represent a different nation in an attempt to make ends meet.

The US has been one of the biggest exponents of playing foreign born players at World Cups. In fact, the 9 “Plastic Yanks” in 2015 is lower than past totals. The US squad is made up of 31 players; 22 were born in the US, 4 in Australia, 2 in Ireland, 1 in South Africa, 1 in Tonga, and 1 in Zimbabwe. The US born players are made up predominantly of former football players. This can be a great strength. There is no doubt that the skills and physical nature of football can be a great platform for success in rugby, but it is not usually NFL ready Division 1 college athletes who turn to rugby. Many US rugby players find the sport in college (therefore missing out on years of learning the game), and turn to the sport after leaving, for a variety of reasons, the game of football. The story of Traverse City, Michigan born Phil Thiel is typical. Theil played a year of Division 2 football at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan before turning to rugby. He went on to play for a local rugby team in Traverse City before playing semi-professionally for Cinderford in Gloucestershire, England, and trialing with the English Premier Rugby team Saracens. He now plays for perennial US powerhouse Life University Running Eagles. Theil is one of the more experienced players in the US squad and his nomadic journey, struggling to eke out a professional wage as a rugby player, is typical.

The Future of US Rugby

The US do have players who are capable of breaking out as stars of the tournament. Native Californian Samu Manoa has just been signed by French team Toulon (who have won the past 3 European club rugby tournaments) and is widely considered one of the finest back row forwards in the world. Connecticut born Chris Wyles has played professionally in England for over 10 years and has an impressive 50 caps and 14 tries for the US national team. Manoa is of Tongan descent and his father and grandfather both played international rugby. Wyles’ family moved to England before he was a teenager and much of his rugby education was in the UK. They are the exceptions in the US rugby squad and 2 of only 11 players with World Cup experience.

Embed from Getty Images

A glimmer of hope for US Rugby is the inclusion of Rugby Sevens in the Summer Olympics. Rio 2016 will see Rugby Sevens appear for the first time and with it a real chance that the US Rugby could benefit from funding from the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Rugby Sevens is just that—rugby union played by 7 players rather than 15. It is played mainly at the international level on the world stage and is often a training ground for young players. The aforementioned Chris Wyles, for example, proved himself in Rugby Sevens before making the switch to the senior US team. Sevens rugby is much faster (it is played on a full size field) and more about speed than brute force or technical ability—something that may prove enticing to US athletes, especially with the chance of appearing in an Olympic Games and emulating the heroes of 1920 and 1924.

The future for US Rugby could be extremely positive. The team has superstar players playing in the top leagues in Europe. Americans will have the chance to watch the tournament on television with 9 games being shown live on Universal Sports and NBC Sports. There are unconfirmed (but promising) talks of US Rugby bidding to host a future World Cup[7]. All of this coupled with the chance to play in the Olympic Games means that the sport of rugby union could have a golden future, to match its historic past, in the US.

As far as the 2015 World Cup goes, however, the US will still be expected to beat Japan in their final pool match, and they will be disappointed to have lost their opening game to Samoa. Leaving the World Cup with 0 wins would be a disaster, 1 victory is expected, and 2 could be seen as a success. History, statistics, expectation, and reality means that getting anything against Scotland or South Africa and qualifying for the quarter finals and beyond will be incredibly difficult in 2015. The Tier 1 nations will likely continue to dominate (even with the occasional upset), but here’s hoping that it is the turn of the US Eagles to emulate the Japanese and pull off one of the rugby world’s monumental shock results.

Benjamin Dettmar is a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. He can be reached at dettmarb@gmail.com, or on twitter @olympicsprof.


Notes

[1] There are two forms of professional rugby—rugby union and rugby league. Both versions of rugby hold a World Cup competition and are similar in style but with very important differences. Rugby union is played with 15 players whereas rugby league has 13 players. In rugby league, a team has six attempts (tackles) to score a try (somewhat similar to downs in football) whereas in rugby union a team can have the ball for an indefinite amount of time. Rugby union awards 5 points for a try, 2 points for a converted kick after a try, and 3 points for both a penalty kick and a drop goal. Rugby league awards 4 points for a try, 2 points for a converted kick after a try, 2 points for a penalty kick, and 1 point for a drop goal. Both sports are popular in England and in Australia and New Zealand, but rugby union has a far wider participation rate worldwide with countries such as Argentina, France, Ireland, South Africa, Scotland, Wales, and the Pacific Island nations boasting a rich rugby union history. Rugby union is also a traditionally middle-class sport compared to the working-class origins of rugby league.

[2] Many competitions including the Cricket World Cup, the Commonwealth Games, and the Winter Olympics claim to be the 3rd largest sporting event in world sport. This claim is taken from the International Rugby Board’s (IRB) own website. With its worldwide appeal, TV audience, and money generated the Rugby Union World Cup has a legitimate claim.

[3] US audiences may have heard the story of Jarryd Hayne who is currently playing for the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL. Hayne, however, was a rugby league player. He played for the Parramatta Eels in the National Rugby League tournament in Australia where he was 2009 and 2014 player of the year.

[4] The classifications of Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations comes directly from the IRB. There is also a Tier 3 classification of which only a handful of teams (Ivory Coast, Namibia, and Zimbabwe) have ever competed in a World Cup.

[5] The 1991 tournament saw Samoa compete as Western Samoa which led to a famous quip in rugby circles that went along the lines of “Wales lost to Western Samoa, imagine what might have happened if they’d played all of Samoa”.

[6] It was largely the international success of the 1995 Rugby World Cup that prompted the IRB to allow players to become professional athletes. Before this many players had full or part-time jobs as well as their rugby careers. The top players, however, similar to Olympic athletes in the amateur era, could make a living on sponsorship and appearance fees. Since 1995, the IRB has continued to make great profit and many “Americanisms” including sponsorship, cheerleaders, and commercialization have become a staple part of rugby union.

[7] Any bidding news is unconfirmed, but it is likely that US rugby will at least consider a bid for the 2023 tournament. It is unlikely to succeed as the IRB will probably want to host the tournament in a traditional rugby nation after Japan has the right to 2019. However, a bid in 2023 would set the US up for a far more likely chance of success in 2027.

7 thoughts on “It’s The Biggest Sporting Event Of The Year—Does Anyone Here Care: The Rugby Union World Cup & the United States

  1. This article claims the All Blacks were the cause of the death of rugby in the states. However, America has a rich history of trying to be the best at every sport, as all nations try to do. Would you make the assumption that America saw itself as too far behind the curve to have any chance at success in the game on the international level? Therefore they decided to give up on the sport and focus on things Americans were better suited for? This article raises a good point in that rugby has everything Americans desire within a competitive sport and this isn’t a new phenomenon in America, as we were raised on hardnosed sports. Why would Americans care more now? If the sport had always been appealing in a sense, but Americans were no good at it on a grand scale, why should the people be spurred to care more about this sport now? Rugby isn’t understood at the public level in America, nor does it get any air time to compete with our major sports. I would make the argument that the knowledge is there to be found by Americans, yet the desire is not.

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  2. In the article it seems like the US tries to be the best at any sport they play, but every nation does strive to be the best in every sport as they should. It just feels like the article give out the notion that if the US is not the best at a sport then they will give up on it. Do you think that this is a common thing that would happen to the US if they weren’t good at any other sport? That they would give up on it? We do show a desire to play the sport of rugby in the case that this could be a very American sport due to the history and how the american people love the action of hard hitting, and high scoring, along with big plays being made.

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  3. The question of what caused rugby to be less popular probably has to do with why it became so successful in the ’20s in the first place. Universities turned to rugby as a less violent form of football after a rash of very bad injuries in the early part of the century brought pressure from authorities. For instance, some of the California universities turned to rugby and would provide many of the top US players. However, as the decade wore on and American football came back into the good graces, so to speak, there was no longer the same reason to turn to rugby.

    Couple that with part of the reason why American football became popular in the US (and Australian Rules in Australia, etc.) was the fact that it was viewed as uniquely American and as a way to signify American Exceptualism. (Part of the reason why soccer had it’s second class status for so long.) Rugby with its direct ties to Britain did not demonstrate “American.”

    Finally, it might be good to quickly note in your discussion of the first game that rules for “football” varied quite a bit and were very local (hence the Boston rules, and McGill rules) until teams started to form associations. Thus tams that played the first “soccer”, “American football”, and “rugby” games in the US are all basically the same teams since the rules were in great flux and teams were deciding what particular rules they liked best and thought were the most fun. Only when teams with similar likes decided to form associations did the rules of the games we know today start to formalize and the sports start to diverge form the motley group they were before.

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  4. Although Rugby’s popularity is growing in the United States, the U.S. is still far behind many other nations. It’s a little hard to admit that the U.S. is absolutely a tier 2 nation in rugby. It would be nice to say otherwise but it’s true. I personally attended the Eagles vs. All Blacks game in Chicago October 2014 and the separation of playing level was certainly clear with a 73-6 New Zealand victory. However with that being said I think the playing level gap is slowly and slowly getting smaller. It’s hard to say when and how long but it seems that eventually one day every nation will be competing at a tier 1 level, including the U.S.A.

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  5. It is interesting to see if the U.S. level of rugby will grow considering all of the other sports that the U.S. is very dominant in. It never occurred to me that it was a very popular sport but it appears to be growing. The U.S. team has veterans like Chris Wyles, and young stars like Samu Manoa who seem to have the ability to lead them to a good performance in Rio 2016, which would definitely boost rugby’s popularity throughout the U.S. Is rugby on the rise enough to become one of the top sports in the U.S.? Or is it going to grow slowly and then begin to decline more because of the already popular sports like football, baseball, etc.?

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  6. I have honestly never been really in to watching or even talking about rugby. But, after reading this article I stopped and thought about rugby as a sport and how the US as a whole views it. Although this article was an interesting one, many questions came into my head while reading it that I wish you had answered in the article. One of which is why hasn’t any one gone to the extremes to try and make rugby a larger sport in America. I feel if other countries are doing it, especially the Tier 1 teams then maybe if the United States did the same thing, instead of being a Tier 2 team they would become a Tier 1 team with more home country players rather than having people born outside of this country to play. Overall, this was a well written article about the past, present, and future of the sport and now I hope America can make this sport a little more publicized.

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  7. Pingback: Professional Rugby in the United States | oultona

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