Don’t think me crazy, but it’s time the U.S. replaced Italy on the world rugby stage.
I’m sure that many attendees of last weekend’s home rugby tournament noted the striking similarities between rugby and (American) football. Of course, rugby and football are nothing more than two different codes of a Victorian game first played in 19th century England. And while soccer also falls under that category, rugby and football still maintain some core concepts that make them look—at least visually—very compatible.
During the FIFA World Cup in 2022, I saw many Americans claim that the best U.S. athletes could, if given a year or two to practice, beat the best soccer teams in the world. That claim is, in my not-so-humble opinion, complete bulls–t. There are so few transferable skills between football and soccer, the idea that an NFL or NBA player could just waltz into world soccer is absurd.
But what about rugby? What if we took some of America’s finest football players, put them in scrum caps and let them loose? Could the U.S. genuinely put together a world class international rugby squad?
In my view, yes. And the best place to test out this new all-American team? The Six Nations.
The Six Nations Championship is an annual rugby tournament held between the northern hemisphere’s six best international rugby teams. Since 2000, that has been England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France and Italy.
However, the Six Nations has a notable outlier. Italy, also known by their nickname gli Azzurri, has an abysmal record in the tournament. The team has never finished higher than fourth place and has finished dead last in nine of the past ten competitions. Try as they might, the Italians simply cannot compete with the rest of the pack.
Enter the United States. With Italy on a death spiral, it seems only a matter of time before the other nations elect to put the Azzurri out of their misery and kick them out for good. There is, then, no better time to start assembling a national U.S. rugby team to take Italy’s place.
“But Ben,” I hear you asking, “where are we going to find people who even know the rules of rugby, let alone can play it on an international stage?”
Well, let’s think for a moment about the kind of players rugby needs. A rugby team is generally broken down into two broad positions, forwards and backs. As counterintuitive as it may seem, think of forwards as the defenders and backs as the attackers. Forwards generally have the builds and skills of offensive linemen: they are big, strong and fast. Backs are more like your other offensive players in football. For example, scrum halves are similar to quarterbacks and wingers are similar to wide receivers.
With such obviously translatable positions, American football really does breed players who would be perfect for rugby. And there is certainly no shortage of amazing football players who, just because of how sports in the U.S. work, never play professionally.
So, my plan? Let’s take the best undrafted college football players and get them on a rugby field. Of course, it would take time to build a team that way. A hypothetical U.S. rugby coach would have to teach these players rugby from the very basics, something that I imagine could be quite frustrating. But give it enough time, effort and investment, and I really do believe that the qualities that made those gentlemen such good football players would also make them excellent rugby players.
Take as a really good example our very own Wabash rugby team. Most of our guys, with a couple of notable exceptions, had never played rugby before coming to Wabash and had to learn the game from scratch. And indeed, some of them had even played football in high school. And yet, Wabash has somehow managed to turn a bunch of men who didn’t even know what a try was into a winning program.
Of course, international competitive rugby is a whole other proverbial kettle of fish. The Six Nations is a long-standing and well-respected tournament—there’s no way that they would allow new kids on the block to just stroll in. But give the U.S. a chance. It may start with scrimmages and grassroots stuff, but the Six Nations is calling. And it is desperately crying out for an American team.