Gaining Ground

Play Ball Members of the Detroit Rugby Football Club get in the fighting spirit. // Photograph by David Lewinski

The last time rugby had a place in the Olympics, Calvin Coolidge was in the White House. Most Americans are probably as unfamiliar with the traditionally British sport as they are with the policies of the quiet man who was president during the Roaring ’20s.

On this side of the Atlantic, a mention of rugby is more likely to evoke images of Ralph Lauren fashion than Olympic competition. But local fans hope that will change.

Late last year, the International Olympic Committee voted to reinstate the sport of rugby in the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. The sport had been shut out of the 2012 Olympics, but its supporters remained vigilant and earned an 81-8 victory in the committee vote.

An extreme contact sport, rugby is often compared to American football. The fast-paced game promotes continuous play, like soccer. A rugby ball is like a traditional football, but it’s rounder in shape and doesn’t have laces. In order to move forward down the field, players run with the ball or kick it. The ball can be passed only laterally or backward. The player in possession of it must try to score before being tackled.

Kirk Borger, president of the Detroit Tradesmen Rugby Club, hopes rugby’s reinstatement will bring more attention to the fast-paced contact sport. “We’ve definitely seen rugby participation increase over the past 10 years,” says Borger, who has been involved with the Detroit Tradesmen for more than two decades. “I’m excited it will get some exposure within the media come the [2016] Olympics.”

Sherrie Ingham, a four-year member of the Detroit Rugby Football Club and its vice president of operations, says her team got the news of the reinstatement as they were traveling to Denver for Division I playoffs. “We all were excited to see the addition, [and we] can’t wait for the sport to grow,” she says.

The Olympic rugby competition will consist of a four-day tournament of 12 men’s and women’s teams. A traditional union rugby game is played with 15 players on each side; however, the Olympic tournament will introduce a lot of people to the seven-on-seven game. “Not everyone who plays fifteens is able to play sevens,” says Borger. “It’s a different game.” Ingham and Borger see a brighter future for rugby in the U.S.

“The excitement has rejuvenated [Detroit RFC] to promote the sport,” says Ingham. “Who doesn’t want to play on an Olympic team for a chance to win a medal?”