Rugby News & Views From an American Perspective
With the completion of the USA 7’s tournament this past weekend in Las Vegas, we can now turn our sights on what is on the horizon for Sevens in the United States. The tournament was a rousing success that may have finally scratched the surface of the possibilities that rugby has in America.
We have been through the discussions regarding professionalizing the USA 7’s team. Same goes for the possibility of a professionalized competition. Those topics will certainly get plenty of coverage in the next year, but right now I want to focus more on the grassroots of Sevens in the United States.
Like it or not, we are all going to see a lot more of Sevens in the coming years. It’s a natural byproduct of the Olympic announcement. It is going to become the version of rugby that is most recognizable to the American public. There’s nothing wrong with that either. We need to embrace whatever method needed to introduce more people to the sport of rugby.
With the Olympic inclusion of rugby, USA Rugby has gotten themselves a high powered partner in the United States Olympic Committee. The USOC is in the business of winning medals and supporting athletes. Winning medals is first and foremost on their agenda. Less than six months from the announcement and the rugby community is beginning to feel the involvement of the USOC in shaping the future of the game.
At this point it is very important that the rugby community look towards the future with an open mind. However, I will not be surprised one bit if, at some point, the USOC ruffles the feathers of some involved with rugby in America. Make no bones about it, they are focused on developing Sevens. If fifteens benefits as a result, great. If not, don’t expect them to shed a tear.
That time may also be sooner than expected. The athletes that will represent the USA in rugby at the 2016 Olympics are in high school or just starting college right now. Expect three sectors of the game to immediately begin to feel the pressure from the USOC. The first two I have just mentioned and the third is youth rugby.
What kind of changes can be expected?
Well, it is known that USA Rugby’s State Based Organizations have already been set in motion to organize Sevens at the youth and high school levels. Collegiate rugby is an entirely different beast, but a Collegiate Sevens competition is not far off. We’ve heard all of those rumors and they will be discussed at another time.
Let’s start with youth rugby, since it requires much less discussion than High School. To this point, youth rugby programs have been run by whatever guidelines set by the program leaders. For many, youth rugby is already played much like Sevens, so it may ultimately be suggested that all youth rugby will be played to Sevens guidelines. With most youth programs in their infancy, any ties that can be made to the Olympics can only serve as a boost.
From a personal standpoint, I run a youth program. In the past, attempts to get information into schools have been met with degrees of resistance. Now, the mere mention of Olympics and our flyers are getting an easy pass into schools. It’s been a win-win situation for our program.
The push at the High School level could cause some friction and some interesting rumors should arise in the next year or so as things develop. The bottom line is that there will be some sort of organized Sevens competition at the High School level. That much is certain. How it is ultimately realized is another issue entirely.
The first question that comes to mind is how will fifteens be affected? Every argument from here on out will likely revolve around that issue. The full version of Rugby Union is entrenched at the High School and some creativity will be needed in order to mesh everything together.
At the very least, we should all expect an organized series of summer Sevens events for High School teams. The only problem is that this format, even when played seriously, still tends to be equated with recreational rugby. This will likely be a short term solution in order to get some immediate level of organized play at the High School level.
Another big grind on the format is that summer tournaments will also exclude any football players as they begin their summer practices. With “cross-over” athletes being a hot topic in Sevens, a competition played in the spring rugby season may be the long term plan for USA Rugby and the USOC.
Here’s where the conversation gets dicey. Any shift towards playing Sevens in the spring will conflict with fifteens. No way around it.
This also brings us to an even bigger dilemma. What if the USOC pushes to get Sevens as a High School sport?
You chuckle, because it sounds crazy. But is it?
Right now, High Schools all across the country are cutting funding to sports programs or cutting the programs altogether. Starting a Sevens team is cheaper than any other sport, it doesn’t need much support, it can be played by both girls and boys, it takes advantage of existing facilities, it doesn’t need equipment, and it’s an Olympic sport to boot. With a major push from the USOC, nearly every High School in the country could have a Sevens team within 5-10 years.
Does is sound like a long shot? Not really if you think about it.
What happens to fifteens? Don’t be alarmed, it’s not going anywhere. The growth seen at the High School level has been tremendous in the last decade. As a club sport, there’s nothing that can be done to stop that growth. While fifteens may take a back seat in terms of exposure to Sevens, this could be a very good thing in terms of garnering more attention and numbers for the sport.
For teams that are already entrenched at their schools, the Sevens team may become an offshoot of the club. High Schools that are introduced to the sport via Sevens teams may one day spawn full fifteens teams. There is great potential for the two versions to be mutually beneficial.
I am, of course, taking the silver lining approach to the situation. Fifteens could also be smothered in its sleep by a pillow wielding Sevens movement.
I’d rather cling to my belief that all of this will be good for the game at all levels.
Hopefully I’m right.