Rugby, first played in England and a staple of such countries as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, is gaining traction and popularity in the United States. Some officials describe it as the fastest-growing sport in America, and in April 2016, the nation’s new professional rugby league, the Professional Rugby Organization (PRO), will begin its first set of matches. These will run until July 2016 and will consist of ten games between six teams hailing from areas such as the Rocky Mountains, the Northeast and Canada. The sport’s expansion is projected to grow even further in succeeding years, with its reintroduction into the 2016 Rio Olympics and with Canadian teams poised to enter PRO for the 2017 season.
Rugby shares a common origin with soccer and American football, the two sports to which it is most often compared. The sport’s roots can be traced to 10th century England, when a rudimentary version was played with inflated pig bladders in city streets. Such games were often disorganized, attracting large mobs of villagers competing against each other and using extreme amounts of violence in order to win. Due in part to the destruction and the disruption to ordinary city life these events caused, they were outlawed by many authorities and even monarchs. However, the general idea of the sport was revitalized in a more civilized manner around the 18th and 19th centuries with the creation of the style of football we know today as American.
From American football, rugby arose in an unknown manner that is typically told in the form of an English local legend. At the Rugby School in Warwickshire, England, the sport is said to have come about from an unusual play. In 1823, William Webb Ellis decided to pick up the ball and run with it in attempt to score against the other team. At the time, such a play was against the rules of football, so the school’s relatively large reputation caused the odd style to catch on and become adopted at other boys’ schools in England. Later, at a bar in London, rules were eventually drawn up that would officially split football from rugby, with the former forbidding ball-running and shin-kicking and the latter allowing such practices.
Modern rugby is played on a rectangular grass area almost identical to a football field with goals at either end. The aim is to score as many “tries” as possible, with each equating to five points. A team can earn tries by grounding the ball in the goal area or by kicking at the goals, and all players have an equal opportunity to score. The team in possession of the ball can choose to kick, carry or pass it in any way or direction they like. Players on defense may tackle only the one in possession of the ball, but anti-tackle training is highly stressed as one of the make-or-break aspects of a good player. Even if any of these rules or others of the staggering list of 59 statutes is broken, gameplay can continue if it will grant either team a sufficient advantage. Regardless, foul play is highly discouraged and frowned upon.
One reason for rugby’s growing popularity can be attributed to the fact that, while still a violent game, some claim it is far less so than American football. American football is currently facing a string of concussion-related controversies. In rugby, rather than tackling headfirst, the shoulders are emphasized as a means of hitting a player. While this can reduce head injuries, spinal problems are still commonly reported in rugby, leading to further questioning of its safety. For these reasons, it is often referred to as the toughest and most physically demanding team sport. As football coaches begin to rely more and more on rugby techniques for training, the gap between the two sports is beginning to merge, which could lead to great success down the road for football’s more obscure counterpart.