It's the world's third-most-watched sporting event after World Cup soccer and the Olympics. Yet the Rugby World Cup, which starts today in Wales, isn't going to trouble the Nielsen ratings. Even so, the American Rugby Union is hopeful that TV coverage of all 41 games on Fox Sports Network through the Nov. 6 final will raise the profile of the sport in the United States.
Jack Clark, coach and manager of the US Eagles, one of the 20 national teams in the tournament, contends that rugby will provide compelling viewing for the uninitiated. "You can see the players' faces," he says. "Drama is in people's faces; in American football, we cover them all up."
Dan Lyle, captain of the US Eagles and subject of a recent Sports Illustrated profile, turned down a lucrative offer to play wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings. The former Virginia Military Institute footballer converted to rugby once he fell in love with it.
"It is a fluidity, continuity game, much like basketball," he says in a telephone interview. "It's a contact sport, much like football is. It's got the skills of a soccer player and a gridiron player put together. And people of all body shapes and sizes can play it."
Lyle does concede that "it's a game that takes a little understanding to watch at first."
There are more than 200,000 rugby players at clubs and colleges across the country, but developing high-quality stars has been hampered by the absence of a professional league. The few players of international caliber - like Dan Lyle - have moved to overseas clubs, leaving a dearth of role models domestically.
"America has some excellent athletes that quit playing sports at a very young age because they can't reach this half a percentile able to play professional sport in America," Clark says. "It's my job to find a way to tap into that population and bring them into the sport of rugby."
In spite of the cost and logistical problems of gathering players from around the country to practice, the Eagles triumphed against good second-tier teams like Canada, Fiji, and Tonga earlier this year. But recent lopsided losses to Wales and England reveal the vast chasm between the Eagles and World Cup favorites like Australia, New Zealand, or South Africa.
The US should beat Romania, but Ireland will be a tougher prospect when they clash tomorrow. "We just need to play out of our skins," Clark says. "People understand that we're an amateur nation playing against fully professional sides."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society