Rugby is Back, and the U.S. Might Actually Have a Shot

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Photographs by Peter Yang

The players hit the field. Hard. The prospects for the Eagles Sevens rugby team are crawling on all fours in some sort of torture session. They include a Super Bowl champion, a captain with an accent straight out of Downton Abbey, and a sprinter who ate dog food to get by as a foster child. There are about 20 guys trying out for 12 spots on America’s team as rugby returns to the Olympics after a 92-year nap. They scramble around a pole in the Southern California sun, diving on a rugby ball the size of a Euro traveler’s backpack.

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“Go faster!” team captain Madison Hughes screams in his posh British accent. Assistant coach Chris Brown named these drills “Yaka Yards,” and as advertised, one player is on the far side of the field, yakking. Another player states the obvious: “This sucks.”

It is all part of training for rugby sevens, which makes its debut this summer in Rio de Janeiro. You may know a bit about regular rugby, which was once an Olympic sport. That’s the one in which 15 guys with torn ears move in unison like some kind of mutating amoeba. (The U.S. won gold in this version of the sport in the 1924 Olympics, the last time it was played.) That’s not rugby sevens. Sevens is played on a patch of grass roughly the size of an American football field but with only seven per side. It’s a bit like hockey when players are removed in overtime and the ice opens up.

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As with American football, sevens teams aim for seven points per possession: five for crossing the goal line (they call that a try) and two for the conversion (which is similar to an extra point). Play pauses when you’re tackled, but you can hike it back to your own teammate in something known as a ruck. Since there are just two seven-minute halves, a complete game including halftime is played in less time than an episode of Archer.

The one advantage the Americans have is speed. Guys like Carlin Isles and Perry Baker, whose nickname is Speed Stick (though his teammates also call him by lesser deodorant variations), are as fast as Division 1 sprinters, but they lack experience. Teams from Fiji, New Zealand, and South Africa rely on players who have been competing from an age when most American kids are still striking out in T-ball.

Isles took up the game just four years ago, and as recently as 2013, Baker was still playing wide receiver for the now-defunct arena-football team Pittsburgh Power. The transition has resulted in some hilarious and terrifying moments, like the time Baker laid out an opposing player. “I tackled like football,” Baker says. “I just ran through and chopped the guy’s leg out from under him. Everyone went crazy.” He was nearly run out of the stadium on a rail while his teammates explained that he didn’t know the rules.

Baker spent four years playing small-college ball, and his family includes two NFL players. But Baker never made it to the NFL. When he gave up arena ball for rugby, his family thought he had lost his mind. “In the beginning it was like, ‘Boy, you don’t know what you’re doing,’ ” says Baker.

But rugby, which until recently was defined in the U.S. by the kegs stacked along the sidelines, is finally starting to pick up a legitimate following. Sevens leagues are sprouting up around the country, with kids playing touch ball and colleges launching leagues for both men and women. The Collegiate Rugby Championship in Philadelphia attracts tens of thousands of fans and airs on NBC.

Still, the Eagles’ practice is more rudimentary than what you’d see at world champion Fiji’s workout. The American team scrimmages, and a pass from Baker flies out of bounds as he tries to hit a teammate who isn’t there.

Brown calls the guys together and says, “We need to work on our comms and keep our passes flat. The effort is there — just need the concentration.” Translation: “We’re trying hard, but our communication is shit and our passes are like knuckling watermelons.”

But after some repetitive drills, the team starts to gel. Baker takes a pass and runs by a defender as if he were a plastic toy soldier. As he streaks down the sideline, you can hear him whispering, “Go, go, go.”

“Good job, Old Spice,” shouts Zack Test, a player with a rugby nose pointing in multiple directions. And for a moment you think that while the Eagles might not be the Michael Phelps of the Rio games, they will be a team to watch. They may even bring home a medal and force us to start taking rugby seriously.

Most national rugby teams come from homogenous societies. Team Fiji pulls from a country of just 900,000 people, and the bulk of a British team might come from five or six public schools. And if there’s truth to the old British line that the Battle of Waterloo was decided on the playing fields of Eton, then it was early forms of rugby that brought down Napoléon.

But this is America, and the Eagles are a discordant stew of Polynesian-Americans, British expatriates, California bros, and urban kids who once dreamed of being the next Carl Lewis.

In England, says coach Mike Friday, himself a Brit, there were two types of players, private-school and public-school kids, but they played the same. “You put them on a rugby pitch and they’re both rugby players,” Friday told a rugby website last year. “Here, you have a kid on a food ration and a middle-class kid who thinks he’s going to get dessert every night. You put them on the rugby pitch and you know which one is which.”

Isles was the one who didn’t get a meal, much less dessert. He and his twin sister were orphans, and until the age of eight, they ate what they could to survive in various group homes in Ohio. He didn’t learn to read or write until late, but he went on to attend Ashland University to run track. Isles’ 100-meter time would have qualified him for the 2012 London Olympics if he were from any country other than the U.S. But as it was, he fell behind dozens of other runners. He discovered rugby sevens on YouTube and thought, “What if I became the fastest rugby player in the world? Maybe that will fulfill my Olympic dream.”

He was living in Austin when he emailed the CEO of the American team. He asked to try out despite being a 145-pound waif of a man and having zero experience. The reply: Sure. Good athletes are at a premium in USA rugby. The sport may be growing, but it has a long way to go before it can compete with football — or even soccer — for talent.

Isles cried all the way from Austin to Aspen, eating peanut butter sandwiches while wiping away tears. You probably would have cried, too. He was giving up his Olympic dream in sprinting for a sport he had never played. He had $500 to his name and a dim hope that his ragged Hyundai Sonata would make it through the mountains.

That was four years ago. Isles is now one of the 10 best rugby sevens players in the U.S., which, depending on your viewpoint, is a testament to either the American spirit or the dearth of rugby talent in a nation of 300 million. Isles scored his first try against the All Blacks, New Zealand’s legendary squad, and the YouTube video “Carlin Isles — The Fastest Rugby Player Ever” has amassed over 850,000 views. There’s footage of him cradling the ball and streaking past Kiwis who seem stuck in superglue.

For the past month, Isles has been working through an ankle injury, but he should be healthy for Rio. In trying to imagine how it will feel to walk in the parade of athletes entering the Olympic Stadium on August 5, Isles says, “For me, it’s going to mean everything. All the sweat, tears, hard work. Everybody who doubted me.” He smiles and fingers his USA Rugby T-shirt. “At the end of the day, my dream came true and I’m here.”

“You got dicked in the dick,” says Pat Blair, a 220-pound Olympic hopeful, as he clamps his teammate on the shoulder. The poor guy is groaning over his aching privates. Bruised and nearly castrated, black, brown, and white, the Eagles look like an internment-camp version of a Benetton ad.

To bridge the cultural chasm and the experience gap, the team has participated in some of those dreaded team-building exercises. The most infamous of them is the 72-hour mostly sleepless walkabout in Joshua Tree, deep in the California desert, accompanied by former Navy SEALS. After being awake for more than 40 hours, the men were asked to climb up a small mountain in the winter black. A rope attached them, with two steps separating each player.

“You had to tell the guy in front of you, ‘There’s an incline, there’s a hole, watch out,’ ” says Hughes, the captain. With his square jaw and handsome face, he looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model. “It really helped our communication on the field. You have to believe in each other.”

Hughes is a notable exception to the inexperience of the American squad. His mother is American, but he grew up in England. He came to the States to play rugby at Dartmouth and can often be seen on the pitch barking orders and directions like a Piccadilly traffic cop. He says that the big challenge the Americans face is that they lack the intuition that comes with years of playing the game. “I tell the guys, make a decision,” he says. “Doesn’t always matter if it’s the right decision, but run or pass, we can live with whatever you decide. Just make a choice.”

One of the team’s transplants is Nate Ebner, who is a slightly slower, more brutal version of Baker and Isles. If his name rings a bell, it’s because he’s also a special teams standout on the New England Patriots. He has a Super Bowl ring and a $2.4 million NFL contract, but he’s no newbie to rugby.

Ebner was a teenager when his father, a junkyard owner and Jewish Sunday-school teacher, gave him permission to join his Ohio rugby team. When Ebner was 19, his dad was murdered, and he found solace in rugby, playing for the junior national team. But he went to Ohio State, and the siren of college football called. Later, the Patriots drafted him, but he always had his eye on the 2016 Olympics.

In the spring he showed up at the Olympic Training Facility in Chula Vista, California, with the blessing of Patriots owner Robert Kraft and coach Bill Belichick.

“Rugby is so free-flowing that you just have to react, and it’s more artistic,” says Ebner. “You gotta think on the fly and just create and go with the flow, whereas football is much more about studying your opponent. It’s much more chesslike.”

In the end you have to play the actual games, and American progress has been a bit of a dog’s breakfast. Last year the Eagles won their first major tournament in London and beat New Zealand in Dubai when Hughes hit a tough two-point conversion. In rugby, the location of the kick after the score depends on where the ball is placed after the scoring play. Hughes had to hit a 22-yard kick with a giant rugby ball from the far left sideline — the equivalent of a 50-yard field goal from a bad angle. But he made it, and the Americans went nuts.

Currently the Eagles are ranked sixth in the world. This year they’ve been inconsistent, but they’re showing hints of brilliance. They finished their pre-Olympic season with tournaments in Paris and London. The French one was très terrible, with the team being crushed by Argentina and then losing to France and Scotland. One moment Baker would be in the open field; the next he looked hesitant, holding the ball as foreign hordes encircled him.

But the Eagles took third in London after beating both the Fijian and Samoan teams. Their biggest victory was against New Zealand, when they won 42–14. Baker ran wild, scoring four tries and thundering down the sideline, smiling and saying, “All right, all right.”

“Now my brother who thought I was crazy says, ‘Man, I wished I’d played rugby,’ ” Baker says with a grin.

The victory suggests that while the odds are still stacked against them, a medal in Rio isn’t completely out of the question. For 14 minutes, the Eagles looked like they had been playing rugby all their lives.

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