Sports fans are hungry. Maybe ravenous is a better word for it—having spent the better part of the year without watching or playing their favorite sports.
While it won’t premiere until 2022, sports lovers should be happy to know that there’ll be a new game in town. The National Rugby Football League (NRFL) is poised to move the sport into the U.S., and, according to league commissioner, Orono resident Michael Clements, “This isn’t your grandfather’s Oldsmobile.”
Although many football fans spend August (pregames) through February engrossed by the triumphs and failures of their favorite college and professional teams, the summer months often seem to drag by, leaving contact-sport fans yearning for more content. “Over 50 percent of the American fan base is addicted to the tackle sport of football … So, during the offseason, rugby is nothing more than American football without the pads, as we call it—‘Steel with sex appeal,’” Clements says.
Photo by Tate Carlson
League organizers are charging full steam ahead, aiming for a 2022 inaugural season, which will extend from April to July. With the timeframe in mind, Clements and his team have their hands full, securing players and coordinating the many pieces of the puzzle, so the teams can be ready for the first drop kick of the season.
Clearly, the players are one of the biggest moving parts. The NRFL plans to start at eight teams, with a roster of 40 players per team. Clements assures Minnesota fans that there will be one team in the Twin Cities. “What’s beautiful about our backyard here is not only do we have four major venues here from Target Field to U.S. Bank [Stadium] to TCF Bank [Stadium], as well as Allianz [Field], and the one thing all four have in common—they are dying for content,” he says.
The league plans to bring in talent from rugby leagues around the world, while also attracting American talent.
Photo by Tate Carlson
As NFL teams choose their rosters, they often have to cut many good players—to the tune of 864 players, who will be cut from their roster spots on NFL teams before each season. A large portion of these players, who have trained hard during the off season and throughout the preseason, are likely a good match for rugby. “We’ve taken players and sent them off to England and South Africa, and, after a couple of months, they’re the Man of the Match, so we know we have enormous horsepower here,” Clements says.
To guide the journey, the NRFL has partnered with the National Football League Alumni Association, which consists of former players and people who have helped run every facet of the league, from administration to coaching. Among those who have helped this emerging league is Jeff Diamond, who ran the Minnesota Vikings and has been named an NFL Executive of the Year. “We’re really happy to have those types of individuals on board who can help with our operations nationally and can make sure … that we are on par with the best of the best,” Clements says.
Photo courtesy of NRFL
While rugby is popular globally, the U.S. could be one of the sport’s last frontiers. However, Clements doesn’t feel that the U.S. is too late to the game. “At the end of the day, America has an eternal fountain of youth, if you will, and a huge pond we can harvest players from for the simple reason that we are a contact–sports society,” he says. “Nobody else on the planet has the depth that we have here, and it comes down to awareness and opportunity.”
Skeptics of the possibility for rugby’s success in the U.S. may be surprised to learn that this will not be the first time rugby has taken center stage here at a major venue. In 2016, on a bye weekend for the Chicago Bears, rugby moved into Soldier Field, selling out seats and breaking consumption records. To Clements, this further affirms the league’s ability to quickly become a staple for American fans. “We are big-league content. We are not a one-night stand,” he says.
Photo courtesy of NRFL
Vocabulary That Every Rugby Fan Should Know
A touchdown in rugby is worth five points, and players must “touch the ball down” in the end zone to score. (Sound familiar? This is where the term “touchdown” in American football comes from.)
The drop kick is mandatory and used often in rugby. The ball must bounce on the field before being kicked. This type of kick is used for the kickoff, restarts and to score a field or drop goal.
Short for “scrummage,” this is the method of restarting play, which involves players packing closely together with their heads down and attempting to gain possession of the ball. It is utilized as a restart of play either after an accidental infringement or when the ball has gone out of play.
A ruck is formed when the ball is on the ground with at least one player in physical contact with a member of the opposition.
This occurs when at least three players from either side are in contact together, challenging the player with the ball and moving toward a goal line. Every player in the maul must have at least one arm bound to a teammate; otherwise the referee will award a penalty to the opposing team.
Rugby is one of the few ballgames where the ball can only travel backward. It is a knock-on if a player accidentally knocks the ball forward with his hands or arm or through a fumble.
A place kick, worth two points, is awarded to the team that just scored a try.
Visit thenrfl.com for more details.