When rugby players take the field for the 2016 Summer Olympics, it will mark the sport's return to that big stage for the first time since 1924. Ninety-two years is a long drought, and really puts the loss of other sports, like baseball and softball, into perspective.
A lot of people may not be aware of this, but during that nine-decade interim, the sport of rugby has been alive and well in America. It has been wildly popular around the world, too. Currently in the U.S., there are high school and college teams, both varsity and club level, as well as teams that play in rec leagues. USA Rugby, the national governing body, says membership has grown from 50,000 in 2007 to more than 115,000 today. They also have more than 750,000 kids who aren't registered but who participate regularly in USA Rugby's in-school and after-school programs.
Those are nice numbers, but what really speaks to me is the fact that people who played in high school and college are now passing the game down to their kids. The manager at my gym coaches a girls' team, and says it brings back memories for her.
"It's a great sport," she told me. "The girls really love it, and they're running the whole time."
As much as I personally love seeing kids active, I get an extra boost from seeing them sign on for sports that other people might not have thought about originally. Sports like rugby and cricket and triathlons are great examples, but there are plenty of others. When a kid gets involved in a new and different sport, his or her friends notice. And ultimately, there's no better evangelist for a sport than a person who is enjoying it and benefiting from it.
While we can count on the Olympics to grow awareness of rugby, USA Rugby isn't sitting around and waiting for three years to pass. They've developed a non-contact, introductory game called "Rookie Rugby," which includes flag and touch forms of the game. Contact is introduced gradually as players develop their skills.
When rugby is played at the Olympics, it will be in the seven-a-side format. The traditional global game is 15-a-side. According to USA Rugby, high school, college and senior teams now play both sevens and fifteens, and an increasing number of high school state championships are being held for boys and girls in both sevens and fifteens. Even better news, rugby is an NCAA "emerging sport" for women, and the NGB is working with a number of colleges to consider implementing women's rugby as a full varsity sport.
In the meantime, those who want to get a fledgling rugby program going can use the tools USA Rugby offers on its website. Soccer fields can be used if portable or sleeved goalposts are set up.
I know that every time there are new sports at the Olympics, there are complaints, and generally those complaints stem from the belief that the new sport isn't relevant to the U.S. To those who are trying to make that case against rugby, consider this: In both 1920 and 1924, the U.S. won the gold. That means in Rio, three years from now, we have bragging rights to regain and a title to defend - you know, just like we do in women's beach volleyball or men's swimming.