An American Happily Lost at the Rugby World Cup

It's an event almost entirely off the American professional sports radar, but the 2015 Rugby World Cup is an event of international splendor as it crosses the UK.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

The first revelation this Yank took away from attending a couple matches of the 2015 Rugby World Cup in the United Kingdom was a bit wistful: American don’t sing enough at their major sporting events.

Sure, we might mumble our way through the National Anthem before kickoff or shout through a “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the 7th inning stretch. That doesn’t approach the amount of happy sounds the crowds make in unison during a 2015 Rugby World Cup Match.

We managed to attend two within the series of fixtures just before the Cup began eliminating teams and whittling down to the final eight sides headed to the quarterfinals. The prime real estate was in Manchester at the city’s Etihad Stadium. While it’s usually home to Premiere League giant Manchester City, it served that night as an international battlefield and Team England’s last match of the Cup.

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It was Uruguay on the slab last night opposite an England team eager to finish off a disappointing tournament on an upbeat note. The red on white flag wouldn’t be advancing to the Quarters, but it would fly higher than anything out of Montevideo that night.

The singing began before either team took the field. This was Manchester, and every sporting event around these parts kick off with the biggest hit of the city’s most recent hometown rock legends, Oasis. Once you’ve got 50,000+ people belting out “Wonderwall,” you know you’re in for a different sports experience.

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Before kickoff, the boisterous crowd kept up the serenade with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” — the official crowd anthem for English Rugby. They’d sing it plenty that night before England walked away with a 60-3 romp over the smaller, but game Uruguayans. Since the game’s outcome was never in doubt, it gave this lost pilgrim a chance to absorb the experience of elite international rugby. It was a special opportunity because this great international game is sadly off the radar of most Americans.

The RWC is a major, planet-wide sports event surpassed in scope and prestige only by The Olympics and The FIFA World Cup. However, since there is no professional rugby in the United States – a painful reality made only too clear while watching South Africa defeat the U.S. 64-0 during the first match I witnessed in London – it gets by most Americans.

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In the States, rugby is a college sport played traditionally by the upper class, private school kids. That’s a stereotype that can shake down sometimes, but it’s not an everyman or blue collar activity. American colleges and universities put some of their red, white and blue boys into professional rugby leagues around the world on occasion, but next to no one is making a living playing the game on U.S. soil.

Rugby suffers for lack of bodies and popularity in the U.S. largely because of the more popular sport it generated. Obviously, rugby is the progenitor of the massively popular NFL and its college brethren. There would be no Super Bowl, no Golden Dome, no Heisman without rugby. Whether or not American audiences appreciate rugby’s foundation building in giving them their most beloved Sunday tradition, there’s no room in their packed collective sports world for old man rugger.

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That’s somewhat of a shame as my evening in Manchester revealed. Unlike the prancing drudgery that soccer often descends into even at the highest levels of play, rugby is fast and flowing. Rugby has so much in common with American football, including the size and superhero physiques of the human beasts playing both games.

Rugby moves in surging, rippling waves as opposing lines pitch the ball while in motion — always pushing to the ends along the sidelines. Like a swinging gate, the momentum lunges up and down the field until one side pounds its way in for a touch.

The game’s more violent moments occur in the tackling that brings on the skillful, underhand spiral pitches back to the next mobile man. The scrums that determine possession on a dead ball offer a breather for fans, but not for the men quite literally locked in a battle for inches along the turf. 

While the rules ad style of American football offer more quick scores and potential for big, game-changing plays, rugby feels like as faster game overall with less of the stop and start, snap to whistle style of football.

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In a matter of a couple weeks, the 2015 Rugby World Cup will be in the books and an international champion crowned. The U.S. might get a little “good on ya” for bothering to send a team. But, after the Cup is hoisted and the great players return to New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Ireland, Wales, etc., the hugely entertaining sport will continue to flourish seemingly everywhere but America, where (for better or worse) we come up with our own games.