The Case for Rugby Sevens

from Nick Suss

Feb. 11, 2013, 3:38 p.m.

I’m just going to come out and say it: the subject matter of recent pieces on this site has recently skewed toward the academic side. There is nothing wrong with discussing the intelligentsia, but that has never been my thing. Don’t get me wrong, this post should end up being analytic and include references to scholarly articles, but it’s not going to be about NASA or technology or budget cuts, this is discussing my favorite topic in the world: sports.

Now, I know what you’re thinking people. Despite the fact that I am putting up a sports piece in early February, this isn’t going to be an NFL Mock Draft (that’ll come later) or a poetic ode to my deep obsession with baseball (plenty of those will come later). No, this includes nothing about the two sports that have dominated this site and my life since, well, all of my life. Rather, I’d like to use this platform to set a reasoned argument in favor of a sport you may never have heard of and definitely may not have seen. I speak of the relatively obscure sport in the United States called Rugby Sevens. Everybody has heard of Rugby, and don’t get me wrong that is a fine game. But Rugby will never catch on here in the states. The nature of that plodding, long, tedious, overly-physical game will never work in a nation that refuses to accept baseball and hockey because of their lengths. But Rugby Sevens is a game made for the American audience.

Though Rugby and Rugby Sevens follow virtually the same “Laws of the Game,” the two games differ in three main ways. Firstly, as the name states, the number of players on the field differs. In general Rugby (I’m speaking of Rugby Union, not the less popular Rugby League for those of you with knowledge of the game) each team puts 15 players on the field at once, totaling 30. In Rugby Sevens, each team uses seven players. However, there is no change in the size of the field. In both games the field is 100 meters long (roughly 120 yards) and 70 meters wide (I don’t know how long that is). Rugby Sevens therefore creates much more spacing between players, creating a higher speed of game than Rugby. As a result of this, another change occurs. In the 15 man game, scrums are made up of 16 competitors, eight from each team, while in the sevens variety only three members of each team are included in a scrum. This decreases the time of scrums by almost triple and as a result kills a lot of the dead time included in the natural game. This decrease makes the game much faster paced and the speed of the game is really shown. And you want to talk about fast paced; here is the most important difference between the two games. In Rugby Union, halves are 40 minutes long with a ten minute half time. The US complaint about Soccer is length, and Rugby Union uses practically the same time. However, Sevens matches are composed of 7 minute halves with a one minute half time. In effect, in the time it takes to watch one inning of a Major League Baseball game, you can watch a full match of Rugby Sevens. I don’t need to explain to you why such short games benefit the American public. As I have outlined this, the three main differences between the two sports are one is shorter, faster, and has less dead time. Does that not sound like the perfection of an already popular world sport? (For the full scope of the differences in the two rules, visit http://www.rugby.com.au/sevens/SevensRugby/RulesofSevens.aspx it really elucidates the differences in the games.)

But those differences didn’t draw me to the game. I watched at least nine matches of this game over the weekend and it wasn’t the length of the game or the spacious fields that drew my attention. As even oafs who barely understand the meaning of the word rugby should know, the game is physical. There is a lot of contact. People are constantly getting tackled to a point that one of the more telling stats in the sport is called “tackle completion rate,” which calculates the percentage of tackles a team makes compared to misses. There is hitting everywhere. But in the more popular form of the game, tackles are reminiscent of a fullback dive. One player bulldozes into a pile of enemy tacklers head first while the pile of enemy tacklers knocks him down. This is still rather exciting, but in Rugby Sevens, nearly every tackle looks like Marshawn Lynch one on one versus Patrick Willis. And in this game, where the competitors where absolutely no padding mind you, the only rule with regard to tackling restrictions is you cannot pick a player up where his hips are above his head. So, short of dropping a player on his head, practically anything goes. Seriously, take a break from this to hit up YouTube and watch some clips of Rugby Sevens collisions. They’re fantastic. This one is my favorite, use it as a springboard. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L6CPmysv5r8

But it’s not just the collisions. I alluded earlier to the space on the field being an asset for this game and you might not understand why. For that, I have to refer you to a man named Carlin Isles. This is a man that wears number 1 for the U.S. Sevens squad and on many occasions over the weekend proved that he deserved it. At first glance, he looks nothing like a rugby player. He can’t possibly weigh a shade over 175 pounds, his face isn’t beaten and bruised like he was attacked by a rake and he isn’t a male model. (Seriously, every single rugby star from overseas looks like a male model. There were girls in my room watching these games with me just to hear the names of the competitors, Google their names and look at photographs of them shirtless. They look like what every man wishes they could wish they could look like. This is getting weird. I’m going to end this parenthetical.) But there is one thing that Carlin Isles has going for him: he is a track star. And not the high school kind of track star, like the borderline Olympic qualifier kind of speed. Like 4.1 40 yard dash kind of speed. Like 10.15 100 meter speed. Yeah, the man can blaze. And the story behind him is he has only been playing rugby for six months. But on Saturday, he looked like a star and he put on a showcase. The way the game of rugby works is you can only advance a ball to a teammate using backwards laterals or long arching punts that are nearly impossible to aim. Since laterals are the main mode of passing, the ball generally begins in the middle of the field and as the ball-handler advances, he laterals to a teammate diagonally behind him and closer to the sideline. This man draws two defenders, and then dishes to another outside man. In a v-pattern, this happens twice more. Each time, drawing two defenders is key. Think of it like a two on two rush in basketball. If the man driving with the ball can pull both of the defenders to the ball, he automatically knows to dish the ball to his teammate, who will have a wide open shot. The same can be said about rugby, except with one main difference. While in basketball, this exchange tends to happen within 25 feet of the net, in Rugby, players often complete this exchange 50 or 60 yards away from the try-line. (The try-line is Rugby’s equivalent of an endzone. If you cross the try-line, you are awarded five points and you get to kick a free kick for an additional two points at increasingly difficult distances depending on how close to the sideline you score your try. All free kicks must be dropkicks, and they don’t necessarily have to be kicked by the same man who scored the try.) This is where the most exciting part of the game comes in to play. If the passes are well executed and defenders are successfully drawn back into the middle, you create a footrace. Imagine an NFL kick return, except with far more laterals and equally vicious tackling. At this point the game turns a little bit into a track meet, but when you have opposing players who can both run at each other’s pace, the game turns into a combination of a kick return and a track meet. If the speedster is caught from behind, he can either a) struggle to get back up or b) find a teammate and lateral to him for an easy score. If this explanation isn’t exciting you I have two remarks. First, you need to be more excited about this! Second, watch this clip. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gA5bwqVN5LM

So, really what’s not to love? Is the game too physical? Is it too fast? Is it to quickly paced in a short game? In my mind and in the mind of Americans everywhere, there is no such thing as ANY of those. I really have no explanation as to why the game can’t pick up any traction in the US. The game’s real base, the countries of New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, Fiji, Samoa, England, Scotland and France, adores the sport and holds it among the highest of all games. In some of those countries, viewership is capable of exceeding Soccer. But, in the states we seem to frown upon all versions of Rugby, which I seek to remedy. There is one very easy fix to the lack of notoriety, but this isn’t necessarily a quick fix. Rugby Sevens will be included in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. This is the first occurrence of this sport on the world’s biggest stage, creating more chances for people to view it than ever. And I feel that this game has the possibility to draw a curling-esque cult following back on the home front, but I don’t really know if it is that quirky. The game is a physical game, and the US isn’t all that good at it. Critics of the game will say that the injury risks of the sport, especially concussion risks, are at rates far too high to be tolerated as a sport with mass appeal. Cynics will say that no country will watch their team if they consistently have to watch losers. Dissenters will say the game isn’t popular now, so it can never be popular because we as a nation are resistant to change. All three of those arguments are valid, but I disagree greatly with all three.

Let’s start with injuries. Read this: http://bjsm.bmj.com/content/36/1/23.full . This text explains the nature of injuries in amateur and youth Rugby Sevens tournaments over time. It not only calculates how frequent injuries are, but also explains which injury types are the most frequent. Yes, injuries happen at an alarming rate of 283.5 total injuries per 1000 hours of play. Of those injuries, approximately 45 of this 283.5 were to the head and neck. Assuming all of those to be concussions, the rate comes in at 45 concussions per 1000 minutes of play. Compare that to NCAA football, where 2.5 concussions occur per 1000 “exposures,” according to NCAA officials. I assume “exposures” to mean of that each of the 44 players on the field are exposed on any given play. So based off of simple calculations, that winds up to be 2.5 concussions per 23 plays. Based on extremely rudimentary, assuming and frankly valueless calculations I just made, in the average quarter of an FBS game, approximately 36 plays occur. Now, I understand that not every player is “exposed” on every give play, taking untouched runners, protected players like kickers, punters, throwing quarterbacks and leaping receivers, but assuming each is, in FBS games three concussions occur per QUARTER! (If you want to complain to me about my research, ask me how I concocted this assumption mathematically, or just want to chime in on any of the subject matter at hand, please e-mail me at [email protected], or if you know me, just text me.) I know that there are three other levels of NCAA Football, and the games travel at much slower paces there, but can you honestly tell me the game that we deem safe enough to glorify practically every day of the week from mid-August through February is safer than Rugby. Furthermore, the game of Rugby Union has alarmingly higher rates of general injury and of concussions than does Rugby Sevens, as explained in the previous link. With all that taken into account, I understand the rate of injury is still too high in this sport and that adding padding may only increase the rate of injury in the game by increasing the force of collisions, but compared to what we already have, this really is a better alternative.

Next comes the issue of the United States isn’t the best at the game, so no one will watch it. First off, we as a nation have been watching solo professional sports like tennis be perennially dominated by foreigners and seem not to care. We’ve seen our team sports, especially hockey and baseball but increasingly basketball too become more and more saturated with foreign players and simply accepted that as watching the best players play. What we as Americans perceive as being the best at a given sport simply means we are where the game is housed. The reason we believe we are the best at baseball is because the MLB houses 29 of its 30 teams domestically. No one watches the very competitive Nippon Baseball League in Japan or any other international leagues back here in the US, so rarely does anyone consider another nation superior to us. Rugby, since it is played internationally, has the exact opposite effect. Since the game is not played here, we obviously can’t be good at it. That is heinously untrue. Firstly, we are among the 12 best nations in the world at Rugby Sevens, which is nothing to laugh at knowing how popular the game of Rugby Union is across the globe and how similar the two games really are. Secondly, we are not making use of our talent in the game. Bill Simmons wrote a great piece during the Summer Olympics in 2012 about how Handball can’t catch on in the US, even though NCAA Basketball players that have the athleticism to play basketball, but not professionally, can easily transfer their talents to the other game. (You can find it here: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8213663/handball-handball-handball) No offense to handball, but it won’t catch on because it is too easy. Scoring in that game is as easy as the New Orleans Saints playing against West Virginia’s defense. But Rugby is different. We have far too many classes of collegiate football. From the lesser teams in the FBS all the way through NAIA and Division III, there are thousands of players who have measurable talent in the game of football but will never make the NFL. For those who still wish to make their lives based around athletics, Rugby Sevens is perfect. It combines physicality with speed in a way that not even football does. If you can find just five such players, we can field a devastating Olympic team. That being said, we would also want to find two track and field guys, preferably 100 and 200 meter sprinters, to play on the outsides and outrun everybody. Assume that they can either already absorb hits or learn how to, this can actually be a team nations learn to fear. I’m not saying we have to establish a Rugby Sevens league at home, but if we can find half a dozen people who were good football players and teach them how to play Rugby, we can logistically be a threat worldwide.

As for the last group of people that have nothing to say but negative comments about the state of sports in the US, I can only sympathize with you. I have extensively explained how the landscape of sports has the changed in the US over time, including the addition of unheralded sports. Take professional football, which despite being around since the Great Depression and probably earlier, didn’t really gain much traction until the late 1950s. Look at it now; it’s the most watched sport in America and the Super Bowl is consistently the most watched event in the world each year. Now take a sport like poker. Poker is a barely a sport, but ESPN broadcasts the heck out of it until the cows come home and now almost any sports-geek can name you at least a few professional poker players. And these people can stand to tell me that a sport like Rugby can’t be received in the US just because it hasn’t already been received. It is exactly that belief that restricts sports like Soccer and like Rugby and even like Cricket from pervading the US landscape and rooting in the country more obsessed with sports than is healthy. On my university cable alone, I receive ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNEWS, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, Fox Sports, Fox Sports South, NBC Sports Network, CBS Sports Network and NFL Network. How can anyone standby and say that no new sport can penetrate the US landscape. That is 10 BASIC CABLE NETWORKS devoted solely to sports. I found Rugby Sevens playing on NBC Sports and then later in the day, they actually broadcast the finals matches on the big time: NBC itself. If the game is already strong enough to merit being played during primetime or close to it on one of the big 4 television stations, it is enjoyable enough to invade American culture. Rally the troops, send in the PR majors, the Advertising majors, the Marketing majors and even the journalists like me at every college to which Storieshouse reaches out. We need to make this a big deal. Because it is.


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