NACRA Sevens Heralds Bigger Things for American Rugby
On Sunday, the NACRA Sevens brought 18 teams from 10 countries to Wake Med Soccer Park in Cary, NC. As a regional qualifier for the 2016 Olympics, the eyes of the world were on Cary. The press room was full, even if the seats weren’t. As put by commentator Martin Pengelly in The Guardian last month, this weekend represented “some of the most important minutes for rugby in the United States – ever.”
When it was over, the two American teams wrapped themselves in flags and hoisted trophies. Before that, the men's sevens squad seized a large "qualifier" sign, raising it for a cheering crowd as teammates bear-hugged in the background. The women's team, proving themselves a class act, insisted the vanquished Mexico team join them in a post-match victory photo—perhaps sensing their new responsibility to build bridges and model sportsmanship as a program soon to gain a major profile on the world stage.
Meanwhile, the leading local news channel, WRAL, gave the NACRA Sevens a cursory mention on the 11 o'clock news. They seemingly did not bother to send a cameraman or photographer to the Olympic qualifying event taking place in their backyard, though they did go into great detail on a NASCAR race in Michigan delayed three times by rain, and finally canceled. They also ran some footage of a local pee-wee soccer game.
Rugby on the Rise: From Grass Roots to World Stage
Such is the paradox of rugby in the U.S today, with its growing base of passionate fans and under-the-radar players on youth leagues and college campuses around the country. In one of the great sports stories of the past year, the U.S. Men's National Team, a few months ago considered a long shot to qualify for the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, defeats arch-rival Canada 21-5, stymieing a fearless physical team with tenacious defense, quickness and passing skill, to punch their ticket to Rio. The women's 88-0 drubbing of Mexico, while lacking drama, was an arresting display of sheer physicality and talent.
And the fans! Imagine the chanting, arm-waving acolytes of the women's gymnastics team in 2012, only more sophisticated as students of the sport. Oh, and fewer in number. At least for now.
When Bob Costas gets ahold of the tale of American Olympic rugby—the legacy as reigning gold medalists from the last time the sport was in the Games (in Paris 92 years ago); the climb from obscurity to world power, with a colorful cast of characters and two very good squads hitting their stride at the best possible time; a quick, exciting, contact sport like nothing else to be seen at the Summer Olympics—the nation might wish it had paid more attention to what was going on in Cary this weekend.
Commentary by Jim Sturdivant