LETTER FROM LONDON FEBRUARY 7, 2013
About half an hour into Saturday’s opening match of the Six Nations rugby championship, with Ireland beating Wales by 20 points to nil, the Welsh backs finally got the ball. The Cardiff crowd—though famous for our raucousness, we had so far sat stupefied by the players’ ineptitude—began to believe our team, rapidly sliding out of the top ten in the world, might not have forgotten how to play this sport after all. Some spectators in front of me in the stadium even stood up.
The ball passed right, toward the wing, where Alex Cuthbert, a big and quick man, was poised to challenge the Irish backs on the outside—poised being the key word. He never got his hands on the ball, which flew behind him and bobbled off the pitch, thereby ending up back in Irish hands.
My father, never what you’d call a ray of sunshine when watching a rugby match, sank into gloom so dark it could only be brightened by telling me that things were about to get much worse. I tried to think up something, anything to help me remember why I liked this sport in the first place. And then I remembered Carlin Isles, a young man who plays rugby with such exuberance that, the first time I saw him, I wished he were Welsh. He isn’t. Isles hails from the United States, of all places, and looks to become a star in an international sport that’s about as popular in his home country as Marmite.
I appreciate that most sports fans on the other side of the pond have just gorged on their sport event of the year, the Super Bowl, and can hardly bear another second of oval-ball action. But watch this highlight video of Isles, which has been clicked more than 2.7 million times since being uploaded in December:
This is why you, America, should care about rugby: You could dominate the sport if you wanted to.
Sports employing inflatable balls emerged out of the 19th century’s ferment of invention. Some players liked just to kick the ball, and they gave us association football—soccer, as you call it. Other players preferred to throw it, and they gave us American football, rugby union football, rugby league football, Gaelic football and Australian football, all of them notable for the fact they should rightly be called handball. While you in the United States chose splendid isolation, and introduced innovations like hard helmets and the forward pass (both illegal in rugby) to your version of the game, the rest of the world mostly preferred to play against each other.
Wales’s first rugby game against England was back in 1881, when American football was little more than an Ivy League sport—and still 25 years away from legalising the forward pass. We have played each other yearly, with breaks only for major wars, ever since. If the Welsh defy the odds and beat the English in Cardiff on March 16, we will level the all-time tally at 56 games apiece. That is almost certainly the closest rivalry in any sporting fixture anywhere.
The Super Bowl attracts a third of Americans to their televisions—an awful lot of people, but almost half of Wales watched our team beat France last year to win the Six Nations.
So why should Americans care about a sport that believes the best use of an oval ball is not to throw it forward 40 yards, but rather toss it laterally 10 yards?
The answer begins with Isles. He grew up a sprinter and football player, competing in both at Ashland University, a Division II college in Ohio. At five-foot-eight, he was hardly destined for the NFL, and although his personal best in the 100-meter dash would have earned him a spot in the semi-finals of last summer’s Olympics, he was considered a long shot to make the Team USA track squad. So he skipped the June trials and chose rugby instead. “Maybe if I could be the fastest rugby player in the world, and one of the greatest—that was my whole mind set,” he said recently, with typical American confidence. Within months the switch, he had made a different Team USA squad: sevens rugby, which, unlike the more traditional 15-a-side one that Wales played on Saturday, will be an Olympic sport in 2016.
When watching rugby, its common roots with American football are obvious, and not just in the shape of the ball. Both games involve running with the ball, kicking it between uprights, and tackling players holding it. Rugby, however, has long believed in fluency and rejects constant set pieces. The ball runs through many pairs of hands before play stops, and that will be only if the ball is irretrievably stuck under a pile of men, or an infringement has occurred (such as a forward pass). A rugby match lasts 80 minutes; with 10 minutes off at half time, and no time outs except for injury. From a fan’s perspective, this means more time watching the game, less time watching instant replays and commercials.
Although rugby collisions are fierce, and hits can be huge, they are less frequent than those in American football, and less central to the sport. The point of rugby is as much to avoid contact as to seek it, and only the player with the ball is targeted.1 Players can get concussed, and indeed do, but not nearly with the frequency of football, in which players use their helmets as weapons, often without penalty. When your 8-year-old son picks up an oval ball, you want him to play our game rather than yours.
At its best, rugby sees five minutes at a time of passing, tackling, running and kicking before the game is reset once more. It is a game for all sizes. Big, tall giants drive the ball forward, while small, fast wizards run it round the outside, sidestepping away from trouble. And that is where Carlin Isles comes in. Though the 23-year-old has not yet been playing rugby for a year, his speed and eye for a gap remind me of another small man—the Welsh genius, Shane Williams, easily the finest player I have ever seen. Judging by news reports, a fair few American football players are taking up rugby after failing to reach the NFL,2 not least because of the chance for an Olympic medal. Miles Craigwell, who discovered rugby after being released by the Miami Dolphins, said he was attracted by the “athleticism and the pace of the game.”
When the American national team came up against Ireland, a team with a long and glorious history, in the 2011 World Cup, they only lost by 12 points. That is very far from shameful in a sport where losing margins can easily reach 50 or 60 points. On Saturday, Wales lost to Ireland by eight points and, in reality, it could have been worse. As more football castoffs and former track stars become aware of the rugby option, and the NFL’s concussion crisis inevitably worsens, it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. can compete with the elite teams in the world. Hell, the way Wales is playing these days—we’ve lost eight matches in a row—it might take just one or two more Carlin Isleses to beat us.
Oliver Bullough is the London-based author of the forthcoming The Last Man in Russia, to be published in April.