Olympic Rugby Returns For Men; Women Make Their Debut

August 4, 2016

Olympic fans, prepare to watch hookers in a scrum who hope not to end up in the sin bin.

The lexicon of rugby, and the men’s game itself, return to Olympic competition after a 92-year absence. The return in Rio also involves a couple of debuts: it’s the first Olympic appearance for women in the sport, and a first for Rugby Sevens. It’s a seven on seven game. Traditional rugby has 13 or 15 a side.

Sevens is a fast, physical and unpredictable game. Rugby organizers hope an Olympic showing will spread the game’s popularity beyond traditional hotbeds like New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and the U.K.

For those who didn’t grow up in those countries, rugby knowledge is limited.

Americans might be able to conjure up images similar to football. In rugby, teams move a watermelon-shaped ball toward a goal line, or the try line.

Players move the ball by running with it or passing, although there’s no forward passing. Players can also advance the ball by kicking it. And there’s tackling, a lot of tackling, but the players don’t wear pads or helmets.

During pre-Rio training at the U.S. Olympic Committee’s facility in Chula Vista, Calif., U.S. women’s team captain Kelly Griffin offered a primer on the game.

“Rugby Sevens especially is like the perfect game for America,” she said, “because one, it’s fast-paced.”

At a U.S. women’s practice, three offensive players sprinted toward three defenders. The ball carrier either shoveled an underhand pass to a teammate, or faked the pass and tried to split the defense. It was a high speed drill and a good example of the game’s pace.

Sevens is a lot faster because it’s played on the same sized field as traditional rugby but with half the players. The game is much more wide open.

Not only is the action fast, the games are too.

Seven minutes halves. In between, a barely-long-enough-for-a-bathroom-break halftime. In total, a 16-minute game.

Which, actually, is plenty of time, according to U.S. team member Jillion Potter.

“In 30 seconds you can win or lose a game,” Potter says. “You can be down with one minute to go and you need 14 points and you can turn around and win the game. It’s that kind intensity, that kind of excitement that will draw people in.”

Hard hitting

So will the hitting. That’s another reason Griffin says Rugby Sevens is the perfect game for America. This country loves a good smack to its sports, and rugby let’s women fully in on the action.

In post-Title IX America, female athletes get many athletic opportunities. But not often the chance to hit, and be hit, as part of a team game. Richelle Stephens, 20, who plays the position fly half for the U.S., says before rugby, she had to seek out contact in other ways.

“In softball, I used to do the collision at home plate,” she laughs, adding she’d do it even if she didn’t need to.

“It was so silly, but I liked getting in someone’s face.”

On this day, Stephens was sporting a rainbow-colored shiner, courtesy of rugby, under her left eye.

Her teammate Potter is in a class of her own when it comes to rugby toughness. She’s a cancer survivor and is playing six years after breaking her neck in a match. She admits being hesitant when she first came back from the injury.

“Yeah there was a little bit of timidness I think coming back,” Potter says, adding “but just gradually building back to the tackling technique and the form and establishing confidence again. And then once you get that a little bit and hit a couple of pads, you hit a couple of people and then you’re like, ‘Alright let’s play!'”

Potter says the injury was a fluke. U.S. women’s team athletic trainer Nicole Titmas says most rugby injuries are not as dramatic.

“Ankle sprains, knee sprains, shoulder separations,” Titmas says. “We’ve had some ACL tears, but those numbers are down. We have special training and work on prevention.”

Titmas says the quick turnaround in Sevens games helps.

“With it being seven-minute halves, we’ll get through a bunch of games and not really have much [in the way of injuries],” she says.

There’s always been an assumption rugby is safer than American football, because players aren’t tempted to make dangerous hits with no outer protection.

But that’s been challenged in recent years, with the intense focus on head injuries in football and all sports.

Hooker in a scrum

Physical, fast, lightening-quick games. There’s a lot to “draw people in” as Potter predicts. But a new wave of interest also depends on fans understanding the game. There’s a lot of jargon and there are many technical aspects to digest.

There are positions such as prop and hooker. The latter is a player who hooks the ball with their feet to an open teammate. That happens during a scrum, the classic rugby action where a group from each team locks shoulders and arms in what looks like a big, interconnected huddle. A score is called a try, rugby’s version of a touchdown, when the runner crosses the try line and touches down the ball.

That’s the briefest of primers. Or, there’s Rugby 101 from Jillian Potter.

“Tackle the person with the ball,” she laughs. “Run when you have it. That’s the first thing they teach you.”

Potter and her teammates are considered medal contenders in Rio.

The favorites include New Zealand, Australia, Canada and England.

On the men’s side, the U.S. actually is the defending Olympic champion – the Americans won the gold medal in 1924, the last time the sport was in the games. It was 15-man-per-side rugby in 1924.

A lot has changed in 92 years, and while the U.S. men, like the women, have a chance at a medal, they’re not among the favorites.

The short list includes Fiji, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Competition for the women begins Saturday and wraps up a mere two days later. The men have their three-day tournament right after.

Like everything else with Rugby Sevens, it’s fast.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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