Rugby made headlines when NFL’er Nate Ebner decided to pursue his Olympic dream on the rugby pitch. The fact that an established NFL player was making the switch turned heads across the globe.
Could he make the cut?
Ebner had already spent years with the game in college, so he could easily find success with elite rugby. To help the game continue to grow, the US needs to continue to identify, recruit, and develop such crossover players.
Mike Friday recently had a discussion about crossover athletes on his Twitter page. Are crossover athletes the way forward for rugby? Well, yes. But not in the way you might think. The ex-football or track star who finds rugby in his or her mid-twenties has a short shelf life. They simply weren’t afforded the opportunity to pick up that oddly shaped oval ball soon enough. We can’t expect to compete with the top nations if we’re teaching basics this late in a career.
American rugby needs more crossover athletes with experience at a younger age.
With the insane competitiveness of youth sports these days, it’s easy to forget that most pro athletes have played three or more sports on their journey to the top. According to a study from the National Federation of High School Associations, grade-age athletes who only play one sport competitively are 70% more likely to suffer an in-season injury when compared with those who play multiple sports. Colleges and pro teams are becoming more insistent that their prospects have participated in many sports, so why not throw rugby in that mix? Rugby teaches safer (and arguably better) contact technique, a discipline and respect often missed in other sports, footwork, explosive speed, and more.
Where Rugby Knowledge Begins
I’ve never played a day of organized football in my life, but I’m confident I could start tomorrow and not be completely lost. I know enough about the game, its rules, how it’s played and what the positions are from just watching it on TV. And I’ve at least thrown a ball around with my dad and played touch football as a kid.
Rugby, however, is rarely on TV in America. It’s not ever-present at family gatherings or community centers. Our current crossover athletes are true novices in the sport of rugby. Not only are they left to learn the technique of passing or rucking, but simple concepts such as the 10m line and offside as well. How can we compare to other countries who have been tossing a ball around since age five?
We have to introduce rugby at an earlier age. Sure, most of these guys will never go on to play professional rugby. And most will pick a lucrative NFL contract if offered one. But what about the thousands of collegiate athletes that never make it to the pros? If they played rugby at early age, they’ll have a basic grasp of the sport. And, having spent the past four years in a high performance environment, those athletes will fit seamlessly into an elite rugby set up.
Obviously not every athlete will choose to continue their career as a rugby player. But the lack of awareness in the USA is basically denying them the option.
Why Rugby isn’t Trying to Compete with the “Big Four”
To paraphrase Mike Friday, the USA Men’s 7s coach, rugby doesn’t want to compete with football. Rugby wants to complement it to produce better all around athletes and give them an alternative career. There really isn’t a downside to adding rugby programs at the high school level. It’s an Olympic sport with no more contact than wrestling or football. It’s popular among both genders, empowering young female athletes with extra scholarship opportunities usually afforded to males. And it creates more home grown talent.
Rather than view rugby as a step down from football, basketball, baseball or hockey, it should serve as a complementary option Especially on the women’s end, where professional contracts are fewer and farther in between. Track and field, swimming and diving, tennis, soccer, volleyball – very rarely do these provide lucrative (read, high-paying) careers for high school athletes, yet they are integral parts of any high school athletic program. Why? They help develop teamwork, confidence, a healthy lifestyle, respect, and discipline. And yes, they’re all Olympic sports, providing a pathway to elite sport outside of a million dollar NBA contract.
How Rugby can Benefit from Other Sports
The diamond-in-the-rough, late-bloomer rugby talent drives this incessant emphasis on pulling ex-NCAA or pro athletes to a high performance rugby camp. But, as ex-international Paul Emerick illustrates, this is only a short-term solution. It puts the athletes who are in training camp, trying to prepare to compete with the best in the world, in the awkward spot of teaching the newcomers how to pass and catch. Not only does that take away their focus and preparation time, but it tends to frustrate the newcomer. Elite athletes are used to being great at their sport, and it’s a difficult transition to pick up a completely new skill at the ripe age of 27.
What would happen if those athletes, however, had played a few seasons of rugby in high school? They could just shake off the rust and adjust their game fitness in a few months time. And they could easily transition from one high performance environment to the next. Maybe the new guy feels free to show off his 40 inch vertical or spin move. Now, rather than waste time teaching basic skills, the veterans get a fresh perspective on ways to develop their own game.
The most obvious parallel is gridiron. However, it’s not just NFL prospects that can bring their talent to the rugby pitch. Career or college basketball players offer learned spatial awareness, manipulation of space, play calling, lateral agility, and basic ball handling under pressure. Soccer gives a new perspective on depth and game management over 90 minutes, not to mention the obvious benefits of kicking. Baseball players can bring their insane hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and rotational power. And ice hockey players bring a grit and aggression unique to hardened veterans.
The amount of athletes who participate in high school or NCAA sports who miss out on a professional career is astonishing. An entire pool of athletes waits for the opportunity to be called upon. Let’s give them a chance by setting a foundation early on and begin a long-term solution to improving rugby in America.
How do you think crossover athletes can help rugby develop? What foundation is needed to develop more? Leave your comments below.