Rugby: It's the next big thing - still

I have carried a clipping of the comic strip Get Fuzzy in my wallet since it appeared in The Inquirer on March 24, 2006.

The feline antihero Bucky B. Katt asks his long-suffering human Rob Wilco what his favorite type of entertainment is.

"Rugby," Rob answers.

"No, not rugby!" Bucky exclaims. "Nobody cares about stupid rugby!"

I keep that clip as a sort of aversion therapy test of my long-stated and heartfelt opinion that rugby is the greatest physically challenging and soul-sapping team sport in the world. It's only a matter of time, I tell myself, before America gets it. As it turns out, "a matter of time" can last the better part of a lifetime. But we're getting there, and today I ask readers to kvell along with me.

Rugby is now being touted as the fastest-growing sport in America among both men and women. I think I made my first "rugby is the next hot sport" prediction in my college newspaper in the fall of 1968, during my first season as a "lock/second row" with Whitemarsh Rugby Club. I repeated it a couple of years later in the Temple News. By 1973, I had a piece called "Sweet Pain and Platinum Kneecaps" in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine - with color photos.

A year later I wrote a "trend story" proving conclusively through statistical evidence that Philadelphia was poised to become America's next great rugby city because of the number of quality men's club and high school programs feeding those clubs. Not only is rugby coming to a TV near you soon, I promised - Philadelphia will be a major player, if not the epicenter of American rugby. It can't miss!

Frank Rizzo was mayor and Gerald Ford president when Philadelphia hosted a Bicentennial rugby tournament in Fairmount Park featuring famous English, Welsh, and Irish teams such as the Public School Wanderers, Old Belvedere, and Cross Keys vs. American all-stars from Boston, New York, Washington, and Philly. The Americans got their noses bloodied but won respect from the visitors. "It's only a matter of time," players from the other side of the Atlantic nodded in agreement. "Any day now."

So 40 years pass, and America is still waiting to live up to its daunted potential as a major rugby power. In test matches since 1976, the U.S. national team, the Eagles, has defeated Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, France, Italy, South Africa, Argentina, Australia, and New Zealand exactly never. As fast as America improves its rugby skills, the rest of the world gets better, too.

The Eagles are ranked 16th (of 25) among rugby nations. The Americans' best ranking was 10th in the 1987 World Cup. The U.S. team's biggest margin of victory came in 2006 over Barbados, 91-0. The biggest loss, 106-8, came against England in 1999. Just looking at that score makes my eyes ache.

So why am I kvelling instead of blaming Ruben Amaro like everyone else?

The good news about American rugby is that it keeps getting better for Philadelphia ever since the explosion of interest and support for the high-scoring, faster-paced seven-a-side (rather than full 15-a-side) Collegiate Rugby Championship 7s Tournament that debuted at PPL Park in Chester in 2011. This is the fifth year of the nationally televised event, which features 20 teams, including two-time defending champion University of California, plus the previous repeat champion, Dartmouth.

Local teams participating include Villanova, Penn, La Salle, Drexel, Temple, St. Joe's, and Penn State. The tournament is celebrating its fifth Philadelphia host-city appearance this weekend and will be televised nationally on NBC. Watch live action beginning at 4 p.m. Sunday in what has become the de facto Super Bowl of college rugby in America.

The city's lock as the continuing venue for the nation's largest rugby collegiate championship franchise was secured this year with a multiyear sponsorship deal with United Worlds Sports, NBC, and the local life insurance giant Penn Mutual, which has not only aggressively promoted the event, but also expanded it to include small college and high school rugby championships on new fields adjoining PPL Park.

As if all that weren't enough, the sport got a once-in-a-lifetime (so far) boost two weeks ago at a national-team level when the U.S. Eagles shocked England, 43-12, in the London 7s tournament semifinal, and then repeated the impossible in the final, beating Australia, 45-22. It was the United States' first international rugby tournament victory.

I'd say our day has come, but then I'd be repeating myself for the 1,776th time.

So for now, just keep an eye on Kutztown University in this weekend's tournament. Long a recognized collegiate rugby powerhouse, the superbly coached "Fightin' Amish" from Berks County fell in the final minutes to defending-champion California in last year's final.

So kvell for Kutztown, just this once. It's not so bad.

Clark DeLeon is a regular contributor to Currents.