PHOTO BY ASSOCIATED PRESS
United States’ Nate Ebner during Tuesday’s men’s rugby sevens match against Brazil at the Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
By Harold Rivera
For the first time since 1924, rugby has made its way into the summer Olympics. After a 92-year-hiatus, 12 countries will battle for gold in a sport that’s slowly gaining popularity across the world.
Women’s play finished on Monday, with Australia winning gold, New Zealand taking silver and Canada earning bronze. The United States women finished fifth overall.
Yesterday, the men’s group stage began with the United States losing its first game to Argentina, but bouncing back with a win over Brazil in its second match of the day.
Olympic rugby has a handful of differences from the way in which the sport is normally played. The rugby in the Olympics is known as “rugby sevens,” which is played with seven players on each team and seven-minute halves. The more popular version of the sport is known as “rugby 15’s” which consists of 15 players on each team and 40-minute-halves. The majority of the rules are the same for both versions of the sport.
Of course, there are local ties to the men’s team representing the United States in Rio. Nate Ebner, safety for the New England Patriots, is on the team. Ebner decided to put a pause on his football career to pursue a gold medal. He scored twice in yesterday’s action.
The rugby wave made its way to Lynn in 2002, when the North Shore Rugby Football Club was established. The North Shore Reds host their practices and home games on GEAA Field in Lynn.
Diego de Leon, who has played for three years with North Shore, said that having rugby back in the Olympics will help educate Americans who may be unfamiliar with the game.
“It’s huge for the sport here in the United States,” de Leon said. “The return of rugby in the Olympics has been 92 years in the making and it’s going to help educate American sports fans on something very unfamiliar to them.”
He added, “I sincerely hope that the Olympics will give rugby’s growth a boost. I think rugby’s definitely on the rise here.”
He also said that having an NFL player on the United States team will help draw attention to rugby.
“Having a Super Bowl champion on the USA squad is amazing,” de Leon said. “Not just as a Patriots fan, but someone who loves the sport and wants to see it grow here. It’s always tough to sell rugby to football fans, but I think Ebner can play a pivotal role in convincing people.”
Tom Moore, one of de Leon’s teammates on the North Shore Reds, feels similarly about rugby making it’s way into the Olympics. Moore said that Olympic exposure will allow American sports fans to see what makes rugby unique.
“I think it will give people their first opportunity to watch rugby on a major scale,” Moore said. “They’ll be able to see all the things that’ll make it a popular sport here in America — nonstop action and big hits. It’s going to allow the game to grow in popularity and get rid of some of the party atmosphere stigmatization and show people that it’s a sport where people can achieve really big things.”
Moore, who has played for three years with North Shore, said that having a football player like Ebner representing the United States will reflect the level of athleticism that’s required to play rugby.
“It’s going to show that a lot of the athletic ability translates,” Moore said. “Football players can play rugby and vice versa. Ebner’s done a good job in explaining the differences. Some of the requirements in cardiovascular activity are higher in rugby.”
Moore added that one of the key differences between the two sports is that there’s more opportunity for those who want to play rugby into their adult years.
“Football isn’t set up to play after college if you aren’t going pro,” Moore said. “In rugby, if you want to keep playing at 40 or 50, there’s always a spot for you.”
Moore, who noted that sevens rugby is more “action-packed” and “quicker” than the 15s game, said the sport has the features it needs to become popular in the United States.
“We like our sports to have contact and there’s plenty of that,” Moore said. “It’s a fast-paced, exciting game. There’s always something going on. If you blink you’re going to miss something, especially in the 7’s game. You can’t get up and walk away from the couch.”