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Olympic Rugby is back for 2016, the first time since 1924 when the USA won gold. In those days, it was the 15-man version, but the '7s' version of the game, played at lightning speed, is now the Olympic form. The inaugural World Club 7s tournament is played this month at the 80,000-seat Twickenham Stadium, London - WIN TICKETS HERE - and teams from New York and San Francisco will be there. We asked Jim Snyder, Director of USA Club Rugby, about rugby's resurgence both at the Olympics and in the United States.
"The readmission of rugby into the Olympics can't be understated for America. Olympic athletes are held in a real special place in American hearts and now that our rugby players are Olympic athletes, it's changed things significantly... it's going to be a game changer for us.
"We were having very strong growth in the sport just through good quality grass roots efforts, but what we're seeing is that with the inclusion of 7s in the Olympics it's taken that growth curve and spiked it upwards just because of the additional interest, from the general sporting population all the way through to sponsorship partners and broadcast partners."
Over 1000 US colleges now have rugby teams. How are those programs able to attract and retain talent that might otherwise be skimmed off by football?
"In those 1000-plus collegiate rugby programs there's everything from highly professionalized varsity programs right down to purely social. One of the ways they're able to lure athletes outside of the natural appeal of rugby is that a lot of the sports at the university level are really elite and exclusionary – there's caps on roster sizes, so sometimes there's no room in these other sports and sometimes what we're seeing now is that a good athlete just chooses rugby because they enjoy it more."
There seems little correlation between which schools are big in football and which are big in rugby.
"It may be just the opposite, that there are universities that in place of putting resources into the football team, their football team isn't very strong or they don't have one, so they'll put more resources into their rugby program. Some of the universities that have very strong football and basketball programs don't have the depth and breadth of administration and finances to also fund a strong rugby program."
Are the top level US Rugby players rugby-raised or converts from other sports?
"I would say the majority will be rugby-raised to this point. There's a couple of guys – Carlin Isles is the most visible example of a recent crossover – but the majority of the roster are raised, which is a good sign. The youth development, the grass roots programs that were launched 10 years ago are starting to bear fruit."
Jim is also Head Coach of University of Colorado Rugby. We asked him how the game of rugby making itself heard in major league sports markets such as in Denver/Boulder.
"It's an enjoyable challenge that USA Rugby has had to grow the game at that youth level, and we've made a lot of strides in ways that we never would have considered before. It's getting rugby - both flag and non-contact versions - into elementary schools as part of anti-obesity campaigns, active children campaigns, and sometimes the parents of the kids don't care what they're doing as long as they're moving and they're active. We get them into playing rugby and guide them, and they fall in love with the sport and continue on through high school; so it's been an interesting icebreaker to introduce thousands of kids every year under these other channels, not necessarily playing rugby because you love rugby, but because it's a fun thing and burns off a lot of energy, and every kid touches the ball."
Is the popularity of Rugby in the US regionalized? I know Glendale, Colorado considers itself 'Rugbytown, USA'.
"It is, in that there are still some pockets that have a lot of room for growth, they haven't quite adopted it, but there are other areas where it's an excepted norm. The Denver area is one, Salt Lake City/Utah - where they have a very high islander population, so that helps - Northern California and the Bay Area has a huge rugby presence through all age groups, so there are regions where it's stronger and regions where it's weaker, but that's only a question of where we are on the timeline."
The TV networks seem genuinely enthusiastic for Rugby: NBC's coverage of the Club Rugby Championships (CRC) outdrew Men's Lacrosse, and BT Sport will be covering the World Rugby 7s. Is this the 21st century form of rugby, the way 20/20 may be for cricket?
"Its a raging debate here in rugby circles as to if that's good for 15s or not, but I think it's undeniable that the commercial viability of 7s – the brevity of the games and the ability to include commercial stoppages – answer concerns for those broadcasters in their business models. Until 15s grabs hold of a massive market share in the US, 7s allows broadcasters to air a sport that's exciting and new with seemingly less risk. So it's already started to take off with the USA Las Vegas round of the HSBC 7s series and with the CRC and the USA Rugby 7s championship there's going to be more and more 7s series to see, especially if the US teams qualify for the Olympics."
Is USA Rugby shaping for medals at Rio 2016?
"Our [qualification] pathway is through Argentina and Canada, likely with that second spot being either US or Canada. Anything less than a medal for the women at this point would be disappointing, because our women's program has been strong the last couple of years."
How is US Rugby encouraging Women's Varsity Rugby? I believe Harvard and Davenport become the 7th and 8th Varsity programs this year.
"An interesting landscape component in the US is with Title IX, the regulation that requires universities to offer equal athletic opportunities for women as they offer for men, basically on a headcount basis. Quite a few of the universities are not in compliance with Title IX, so one of the areas we've been able to promote, in the growth and adoption of the game, is letting the universities see the ease with which they can adopt a women's varsity program relative to other sports like lacrosse and softball and others that require special equipment and special facilities. It's very inexpensive to launch a women's rugby program and get a 45-60 female headcount in your favor, so that's been a boost for us on the women's side that we're seeing schools like Harvard and Davenport adopt. And I would expect you'll see over the next 3-5 years a very sizeable number of additional schools and even entire athletic conferences come on board. Especially we might even see 7s-only programs where a university could pick up 15-20 athletes and specialise in an Olympic sport; there are quite a few schools that really pride themselves on producing Olympians, like Stanford, Cal, and some of these schools that consistently pride themselves on their athletes moving on and winning medals. We think those points are converging to where we will see lot of growth in that area."
When will Colorado be joining as a women's varsity?
"They are member of the Pac-12 Conference, and one of the targeted conferences is the Pac-12 because that includes UCLA, Cal, Stanford. If some of those universities start to fall and adopt women's rugby, then the big push would be on the rest of the schools in that conference so that they could naturally play each other just like they do in other sports."
Will the World Club 7s tournament 'reveal all' on US progress versus other nations?
"I'm hoping it will reveal we're stepping in the right direction. We're very early in the process; for our Olympic development program it's basically been slightly over a year since we had our athletes in residency, so we try to keep that in perspective despite the enthusiasm. That said we've got guys who showed in the last five legs of the IRB series, and some of the other guys on these two teams can play at the top level and at the top level of 7s, so we're excited to see how these two teams do in this environment - a beautiful venue and a tremendous crowd and against these other club teams - as another way to gauge our progress. If we have a good showing, we'll know that the moves we're making are working, and if we don't then it's not back to the drawing board, but let's assess what we need to do."
Does the name Twickenham carry the same meaning for US players as it does for British rugby fans?
"I think it does because there are some things that do translate, and the guys that play do recognize the history of the game and their importance and presence in the squad. The casual observer may not but the guys who lace up their boots and take the field realise that this is special - the history there and what it means. When they walk out the tunnel, I'm sure they'll be having chills.
"It's an opportunity that we're really excited for as another part of that learning process, because these guys have been playing in front of small crowds at medium side venues here in the US. You really don't know how you're going to react. Some of the guys have experienced it in places like Hong Kong, so it will be less of a shock, but some of the younger guys - how they react and how they perform is going to be a testament to who they are."
Is the experience of traveling to London part of the training for the enormity of Rio 2016?
"And all the components that go with it: the media interaction and the professionalism, and the nutrition, and the strength and conditioning, and the training grounds and representing your team and yourself on a highly visible stage. Those are things that any of these guys who want to make the series or make the Olympic squad are going to have to know how to do like a professional.
How many of the club players are college players, and how much have some of them travelled before.
"Of the two teams there's probably going to be five or six who are still enrolled in college or have graduated this past May. Most of those guys, if they're quality enough to make one of these teams will have done a little bit of travel with our Collegiate All-American team or a couple may have international background where they've grown up overseas or spent time overseas with family. The majority of them have been around at least a couple of times, but that doesn't necessarily prepare you for playing at Twickenham."
Who are some of the players US fans should be keeping their eyes on at Twickenham?
"Carlin Isles is electric to watch. When he's on the field you won't miss him because he's going to be the fastest guy out there. Danny Barrett, a University of California product, is just an all around wonderful rugby player, he's dynamic and it'll be fun to watch him taking his first steps at the next level. Maka Unufe – we picked him up out of an U19 tournament where he really was the driving force taking his team to the final and that was at 17 so we fast tracked him into the residency program. His upside is tremendous because he's so young and in a professional, full-time atmosphere the sky's the limit for someone like him."
What can we expect at the World Club 7s Tournament at Twickenham?
"Arguably the best sporting event that you can go to is a 7s tournament. The turnover of the matches and the pace at which the game is played, you can sit there for two straight days and not get bored for one minute because if a game gets lopsided or it's two teams that you don't have an interest for, 15 minutes and that one's over and two more teams take the field. You can sit and be pretty much on the edge of your seat the whole time. You certainly won't be bored and you certainly won't regret it."
WIN TICKETS to the World Club 7s Tournament at Twickenham by entering our competition here.