Finally this weekend the Eagles were champions. No, not the Philadelphia Eagles, 2018’s Superbowl champions of the NFL. The USA Rugby 7’s Eagles were crowned champions of the Las Vegas Sevens tour stop of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. It is the Americans’ first rugby tournament victory on U.S. soil, and only its second ever (the other was in London in 2015).
Although the United States won the 1920 and 1924 Olympic gold medals for standard 15-player rugby, a long hiatus ensued where sports like NFL football, baseball, and basketball grew in popularity and rugby waned. And although USA rugby has a large and enthusiastic collegiate and post-collegiate amateur club tradition, little impact was made for decades in the professional ranks of world rugby. This began to change in 1975 when USA rugby formed a permanent national association and re-joined international competition. In 1999 USA Rugby assembled a national 7’s team (7 players to a side rather than 15, with 7 minute versus 40 minute halves) and professionalized the team in 2011.
Each year the USA Rugby 7’s team has improved in world play, and the team earned extra attention with its competitive play in the 2016 Olympics, which brought back the sport in its 7’s variant. Always athletic, its players have steadily improved its technical play, allowing it to perform better against more technically and physically-driven teams like those from South Africa, New Zealand, Argentina, Australia, and the UK, countries that foster professional rugby leagues that continually crank out terrific players.
The US does not have a professional rugby league (the one and only attempt folded after a brief venture through 2017), highlighting the difficulty that British Commonwealth sports have had in earning enough popularity in the US to make them commercially feasible. Cricket, the other popular Commonwealth-wide sport played in the US, but not professionally, has struggled mightily in the US despite some enthusiastic club-level play–failing to even create a national association that can be accredited by cricket’s world sanctioning body.
Nevertheless USA Rugby gamely battles. USA Rugby 15’s (the standard form) has played in every Rugby World Cup but one since 1987. USA’s rankings in standard rugby fluctuate between 14 and 20 in the world, with no win against a team ranked better than 15th in the eighteen months preceding this blog post. But USA Rugby 7’s is a different story, with the smaller side dominating countries that it can’t compete with in XV-side games, taking advantage of speedy players and better tactics that have not proven to be yet effective in the larger game. USA Rugby hopes that eventually the success in the 7’s game will provide a fertile ground for players that can be developed for the standard game.
My congratulations to the 7’s Eagles for their hard earned win in Vegas. May it set the standard for the future years of USA rugby across the board.