Football. Basketball. Baseball. Hockey. For years these four sports have been the dominant professional leagues in the United States. Overseas and in other parts of the world sports like soccer, cricket and rugby are wildly popular while the American sports are barely acknowledged.
Now that it has a shorter, more TV-audience-friendly version, the sport of Cricket is becoming even more popular. The recent rugby World Cup, won by South Africa, demonstrated the international appeal of the sport. Meanwhile, in the United States these sports barely register in the public conscious. Admit it, most people who went to college knew about the shenanigans of the rugby team, but did you know that there is now a professional rugby league in the USA?It is now possible for rugby players, from any nation, to travel around the world to play in professional leagues in various countries.
We are used to the process of what it takes to become a professional in one of the major sports, but what does it take for an athlete of a “second tier” sport like soccer, lacrosse or rugby to become a professional and play at the highest levels? Another question is, if the sport isn’t on TV, can it become part of the American sports culture?
Second tier sports receive minimal funding and have to fight for field space from recreation departments or schools. Traditionally in the US, many of the second tier sports have been used to develop skills for the more popular sports but with the development of professional leagues for soccer, lacrosse and now rugby, it is possible for athletes in these sports to have a career where they can be paid for playing these sports. No, a professional soccer or rugby player in the US will not make nearly as much as the 53rd man on a professional football team roster, but it is still an opportunity to make a living as a professional athlete.
On this episode of the All About Fitness podcast, Todd Clever, the Director of Rugby for the Austin Herd rugby club of Major League Rugby, discusses his experience as a professional rugby player playing in international markets like South Africa and Japan; in addition, Todd talks about his experience as the captain of the USA men’s national rugby team and how he rose to the top of one of the most popular sports in the world even though it barely exists in the US.
If you’re a parent looking for a way to get your kids away from the screen and into more activity, Todd and I discuss the benefits of youth rugby (full disclosure, I coach youth rugby), the inherent culture of inclusivity in the sport – meaning that ALL types of athletes and players are accepted as long as they’re willing to work hard and sweat with their teammates – and how rugby is the perfect sport for any kid. Finally, we discuss Major League Rugby – the top tier professional league of rugby in the US that is getting ready to enter it’s third season and now that matches (what we call a game in rugby) are shown on TV, the sport should hit an exponential phase of growth. For this week All About Fitness becomes All About Rugby so that you can learn more about one of the most dynamic sports in the world that you should be paying attention to.
As a youth rugby coach, I can attest that it is an extremely inclusive sport with a position for athletes of all skills and abilities. If you are looking for a sport that can keep your kids away from the screen, or are tired of the stale games with too many flags on Sunday afternoons, here are my top 7 reasons for why you should make rugby your new favorite sport:
- It is a physically demanding sport that requires a high level of fitness from the athletes; in other words, it’s a great way for kids to put down the screen and get much-needed exercise.
- Rugby teaches proper tackling technique that is much safer than the traditional “run head first into an opponent” method used by gridiron football (in fact, professional football teams have been hiring rugby coaches to teach tackling).
- The lack of equipment makes it safer for contact. One reason why there are a lot of injuries in youth football is that because of the helmets and pads, kids run straight into each other which is simply not possible when not wearing pads. Yes, injuries happen in rugby, but they are not because players are trying to do “big hit” tackles where they try to knock an opponent out of the game.
- The third half. The first two halves are when the games, called matches, are played; the third half is the social time after the match. At youth levels we host opponents with a cookout, at the adult club level adult beverages are served and at the professional level the players will stay on the field (called a pitch) after the match to interact with the fans. The point is there is a great social atmosphere once the match is over.
- Friendships that last a lifetime. I started playing rugby when I was right out of college and have been lucky to have made friends around the world through the sport. Rugby players have an instant connection when they meet others rom other parts of the globe; a rugby player can travel to any city, find a rugby club and have instant friends.
- Teamwork. Rugby has 15 players on the pitch at a time, all need to work together to ensure success. Yes, individual athletes can stand out and make a difference, but it takes the entire team working together to ensure a victory. Some of the best lessons I’ve learned about working with others came from the pitch.
- A sport that lasts a lifetime. I was 22 when I first started playing and was shocked that guys twice my age were out running around making tackles – that is when I ‘flipped the switch’ and made a commitment to myself to be that fit when I was “their age”. Now that I’m older than “their age”, I still train like I’m preparing to play in the front row. I’ve played with guys in their 50s against college teams. Years ago, I was in a match where, for the last 5 minutes, a player in his 70s came on the pitch (wearing special colored shorts so we knew to tag, not tackle him) so that he could say he played in every decade of his life. In 2007, I was a part of a National Championship team with the Boston Irish Wolfhounds where a father and son played together in the final. Granted, the father came on as a sub once the game was well in hand, but it was still the coolest thing I have witnessed in my athletic career.
Yes, rugby is a sport built on ‘elegant violence’ (as the bumper stickers and T-shirts say), but more importantly it is built on an ethos of teamwork, camaraderie and a lifetime of friendships. One of the guys I met on the first day I showed up at a rugby practice in 1994 is still a good friend and I now have the opportunity to help coach his kids and pass this sport on to the next generation. It’s not just a sport, it’s a lifestyle and if you’re looking for a lifetime of physical activity it’s definitely one worth looking into.
To learn how to stay healthy with a lifetime of physical activity, without having to play rugby, pick up a copy of Smarter Workouts: The Science of Exercise Made Simple