Denver: USA Rugby has a vision for the future | VailDaily.com

Denver: USA Rugby has a vision for the future

CHARLES PULLIAM
Associated Press Writer

DENVER, Colorado – Mike Petri has a vision for rugby’s future in America – one in which fans embrace the game with the same fervor as other countries around the planet.

First, though, he realizes rugby’s bad-boy reputation needs an image overhaul. He and his USA national team buddies are working on it.

“Most Americans who think of rugby have the wrong idea of what rugby is. They think, ‘My college had a rugby team and they just threw great parties,'” said Petri, whose team hosts the England Saxons on Sunday in a Churchill Cup match. “This is not how it is, especially in other parts of the world. This is a professional game. It’s a matter of the right exposure to the game.”

In USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville’s view, rugby’s image is stunting its own growth. With about 82,000 USA Rugby members in 2009, he said the game needs more younger players to help change rugby’s rugged image and help the sport grow.

“I think the biggest challenge known for rugby is to have people see the modern game,” said Melville, who captained England’s national teams in the 1980s. “This perception of sort of a badly behaved, singing, drinking sort of culture has changed so much in the last 20 years for rugby.”

The modern game Melville refers to has cemented its international championship as the third largest sporting event in the world, behind only the Summer Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament. More than 2.25 million fans attended the 2007 Rugby World Cup. An estimated 4.2 billion television viewers tuned in globally.

The modern game is a more intense, physical clash, with players who are faster and stronger than their counterparts just a decade ago. It wasn’t until 1995 that rugby was sanctioned as a professional sport.

“Since it’s gone professional, rugby has become a much more fantastic, athletic game, totally different from years ago,” Melville said.

In 2003, the English Rugby Football Union, Rugby Canada and USA Rugby formed an alliance and introduced the Churchill Cup to attract fans and players from the U.S. and Canada. The young tournament provides up-and-coming players a rare chance to engage in international competition.

“It’s getting there,” said Will Johnson, a member of the U.S. national team who switched over from football after his playing career at Harvard wrapped up. “You sort of hear these stats bubble up: there are more American rugby players than there are in England, just because of our population size. … But it’s tough. In America, you’re fighting to overcome some pretty big hurdles with baseball, basketball and football.”

Churchill Cup tournament director and co-founder Terry Buewell thinks rugby is up to the task.

“We need to profile top-quality international rugby so people could see its strengths, see a game of movement, a game of physicality and high energy, high skill and that compares very similarity to many American sports,” Buewell said.

“American sports will recognize that the USA could be a major player on the world side,” Buewell added. “It has the athletes, it has the professionalism, it has the infrastructure, but it just needs the right people in the right place playing the sport.”

Petri often invites his friends to check out local games.

He said they leave with a different perception.

“To my knowledge, anyone who’s seen a rugby game, they may not understand it, but they really enjoy the overall energy and excitement,” said Petri, who’s taking an eight-week leave of absence from his job in midtown Manhattan to play with the national team. “I think in America it just needs exposure.”