Rugby World Cup: The Eagles set to tackle the Brave Blossoms

It’s been a long Rugby World Cup campaign so far, and we haven’t finished the group stages yet! The Eagles, USA Rugby’s national rugby union team, have a long pedigree in this tournament, having featured in 7 of the 8 World Cup Finals held since 1987. Beaten in their first three games of this year’s event, Sunday’s match against the competition’s surprise package, Japan, will be another stern test.

It might surprise fans on both sides of the Atlantic, but the Eagles have a long and prestigious rugby heritage. In fact, they are the most successful rugby team in the history of the Olympic Games, as well as being the last winners of an Olympic gold medal for rugby. We’ll gloss over the fact that this was in 1924, before rugby was stripped from the Olympic programme.

However, Rugby is making a comeback in the states, with 80,000 players registered with the game’s governing body, USA Rugby. Populous-designed BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston, Texas, has hosted international fixtures featuring the US national team three times since opening in 2012. The home ground of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, BBVA Compass Stadium was designed to be the core of Houston’s East Downtown Redevelopment Plan, and has been a huge success since it opened. Indeed, rugby has the potential to play a large part in the stadium’s future, alongside soccer, lacrosse and concerts. The Eagles hosted Scotland at BBVA Compass Stadium in 2014, eventually succumbing 24 points to 6. Although their team was defeated, the 20,000-strong crowd demonstrated the growing interest in rugby across the country.

Whilst the popularity of rugby continues to grow amongst players and spectators in the US, it spiked in November 2014 when New Zealand’s national rugby team came calling. The spectacle of the legendary New Zealand All Blacks generated a sell-out crowd of 61,500 at Soldier Field in Chicago, with the match also drawing an average TV audience of 927,000 on NBC.

Rugby is, of course, a very different physical challenge to the USA’s favourite contact sport, American football. The spectacle is also poles apart. An American football match can take almost 4 hours, with frequent pauses between high-intensity action. Compare this with Rugby Union, where low-scoring contests decided purely by penalty kicks are still not uncommon.

In Rugby Seven’s, it is a whole other story. Played by teams of seven-a-side on a full-size rugby pitch of around 100m long by 70 metres wide, it is not unusual for teams to score in excess of 50 points in just 14 minutes of play (seven minutes per half). USA Rugby are one of the world’s best teams, and made history this year by making the top six in the HSBC World Sevens Series for the first time. Also in 2015, they won their first World Sevens Series Tournament, defeating traditional powerhouse nations including Australia and England en route to an historic win.

With Rugby Sevens included in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games for the first time, the opportunities for growth in the game in the USA seem endless. Many new players have been recruited from the United States’ well developed collegiate athletics programs nationwide. Carlin Isles, now a winger for the US Sevens team, ranked as the 36th fastest sprinter in the United States with a 100metres outdoor personal best of 10.24 seconds, before taking up rugby in 2012.

The growth of USA Rugby, for both amateurs and on the professional side, shows that they have a real future in this sport. And with new and improving nations coming to the fore in the seven-a-side game, the Olympic Games are going to acquire an amazing new spectacle in Rio.

Of course, the question we’ll all be asking is, can the Eagles defend their 92-year-old Olympic title?

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