Thursday, 8 October 2015
This was in response to a comment on this article.
Something which our American friends may not quite understand is that rugby - like NFL - is a "generational" sport. You don't become great at a sport relatively overnight.
A Quick History Lesson
Even though rugby was introduced in the mid 19th century, it dropped in popularity and only experienced a resurgence in the late 1960's/early 1970's (or thereabouts according to some sources). The governing body for rugby in the US, now called USA Rugby, was formed in 1975.
Compare that to South Africa where rugby has been played since around 1860, with rugby union being played from around 1875. The governing body for rugby in South Africa, now called the South African Rugby Union (SARU) being formed in 1889. That's nearly a century apart.
Disclaimer: Although I have very little context of life in the US (I'm South African, living in Ireland) I presume what I am about to describe holds true for NFL as well.
Kids in SA play rugby from a very young age. Although I'm not sure if it's still the case, it was not uncommon for rugby to be a compulsory sport at school. If your parents like rugby it's almost certain that you will play as well. And if your father/grandfather/etc. played for the Springboks then it's pretty much a given that you will play. A number of our current Springboks had fathers/grandfathers who were Springboks - Schalk Burger, Ruan Pienaar, Cobus Reinach (although not selected for the RWC) are just a few that spring to mind.
If you're identified as having talent - even at a very young age (under 9/10) - you will usually get a chance to try out for one of the junior academies of one of the larger franchises at provincial level. This offers them the chance to be coached at a much higher standard than they'd get at school (where it's usually a teacher or two with a keen interest in rugby but no real coaching experience or training).
Kids that continue to perform will remain in the academy & continue getting access to better quality coaching than they would at school. Some kids may earn a scholarship to one of the top rugby schools in the country. This way, they get coaching at school and at the academy.
From there onwards, they'll make their senior debut at a domestic tournament & the rest is pretty self-explanatory.
Of course, mileage may vary, but this is a generalized, grossly over-simplified gist.
The point is that kids in SA have rugby drilled into them from the womb. We watch it with our parents, we play it at school, play it with our friends, etc. We learn the intricacies of the sport and understanding it becomes second nature for those who play (& for most of the supporters as well).
Despite it's brutality, rugby is actually a very technical and tactical sport. It's not just about speed or size or stamina - these attributes are, of course, desirable in a rugby player but what's more important is situational/spacial awareness in the context of what's happening in front of and around you on the field. Split second decisions matter. You could be the biggest, fastest guy on the planet but if you don't have an innate understanding of how to read a game of rugby to be able to make the right decision in that split second you will not succeed in the sport.
Rugby is a developing sport in the US, it's a religion in SA. According to Mike Tolkin (head coach for Team USA), it's the fastest growing team sport in the US. When Americans lose a rugby match, they chalk it up to experience and hope to improve in the next match. The vast majority of the American public wouldn't even know that they'd played.
Completely different when the Springboks lose. When we lost to Japan earlier in the tournament it was considered a travesty - a national catastrophe! It made headlines throughout the country and dominated media coverage. It was spoken about at length & prodded from every possible angle.
The USA may be a Tier 2 nation at the moment but that's not to say they will remain that way. To be truly competitive at the elite level will take generations. The good news is that YOU can do something about it - support your national team - win or lose. Be proud that they qualified to compete in the tournament so that they could get the opportunity to play against two-time world champions.
Find out about and support your domestic league. Tell your friends about the sport, tell your kids, go to matches & support your local teams. It's not your athletes which will grow your team to elite level - it's the everyday American. It's you.