The rugby-NFL revolving door

While researching my next piece for OZY, I came across two stories of rugby players in the NFL — one on the way in, one on the way out:

– Hayden Smith, formerly a college basketball player, is returning to Saracens after playing for the New York Jets. Smith is from Australia but has played international rugby for the USA.

– Fleet-footed (4.22 40-yard dash!) Carlin Isles has signed with Detroit’s practice squad.

If you’re debating the world’s best athletes, you have to consider soccer and basketball players for the mix of strength, speed, endurance and skill their sports require. But you have to consider rugby players as well.

Time for a rugby reality check

Want to know the best place to read up on the quest for professional rugby in the United States?

BigSoccer, of course.

The venerable message board picked up the discussion after The Guardian posted a couple of pieces on RugbyLaw, a startup venture that would set up matches between the London Irish club and a hodgepodge of internationals with newly converted college football players. The hope is that a league would spring from such an effort.

The Guardian‘s headlines, unfortunately, dramatically overstated the NFL’s involvement with the venture. See the comment from RugbyLaw’s George Robertson on this ESPN post.

Issues with the RugbyLaw plan itself, at least as presented in The Guardian:

– Failure to learn from soccer. The NASL (the old one, not the new one) went big, then went home. So did the WUSA. MLS did things differently, and it’s still here. (See Scott Yoshonis’ response at BigSoccer for more on those points.)

– From the story: “If a professional lacrosse league can exist in the US, why not a tournament for the world’s third-most popular team sport?” Probably because the NCAA lacrosse final has been drawing crowds of 40,000 and up for much of the past decade. And because most professional lacrosse players have day jobs and/or play year-round indoor/outdoor.

– The plan is going forward with little more than cautious curiosity from USA Rugby. Oh, great.

Another pro rugby proposal, the American Professional Rugby Competition, seems to be going about things in a more traditional route. They’re not looking for high school stadiums, but they also don’t want crowds to be lost in NFL caverns. They’re studying MLS and talking with NHL, NFL and especially MLS people.

Based on that scant information, I’d think the APRC has the edge. But as with all leagues, it’s not up to those of us in the blogosphere. Whoever convinces investors to step forward will be the winner. All we can really hope for is that whatever emerges is stable. Rugby deserves a long-term league like lacrosse has, not the “three-and-outs” we’ve seen in women’s soccer.

Pack mentality hurting rugby

I have to admit I’ve always been frustrated with the flow of rugby. Not the offshoot of “rugby league” is any better — come on, folks, just put on pads and play gridiron football if you’re going to run things that way — but traditional rugby union just stops and starts far too often.

It’s not just me. The Economist sees the gamesmanship in scrums in particular as a thorny problem with no easy solution.

In the infamously limp match between Scotland and Wales, only three of the 13 scrums awarded were properly contested. Whole minutes at a time ticked by with no action. Craig Joubert, the South African referee, grew frustrated. So did the players. So did television viewers. And so did the 67,000 who had paid to watch.

via Scrums in rugby union: A muddy mess | The Economist.

Monday Myriad, Feb. 11: Ligety, Ligety

Headlines of the weekend:

– The USA’s Ted Ligety won his second gold medal at the Alpine skiing world championships, adding the supercombined to the super-G. Super.

– Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen won the sprint and held on to win the pursuit by a few millimeters over France’s Martin Fourcade at the biathlon World Championships. You just might see a highlight clip farther down in this post. The best U.S. finish so far: Lowell Bailey moved up from 32nd to take 13th in the men’s pursuit.

– England took their second win in two matches in rugby’s Six Nations Championship. So what if it was the lowest-scoring game in Six Nations history?

– The U.S. women’s tennis team fell out of the Fed Cup. Missing Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens might have been a bit of a factor. A bit.

Julia Clukey took second in women’s singles and the U.S. team took second in the team relay as the luge World Cup ran on U.S. ice at Lake Placid.

– Meryl Davis and Charlie White won the ice dance at figure skating’s Four Continents Championship, which drew a strong field in some events despite the upcoming World Championships being higher priority.

The wrapup has the rest of the weekend in Olympic sports. A few more things to peruse, Storify permitting:

Monday Myriad: Feb. 4

Yes, this will be more of an evening thing from now on.

The week’s headlines:

– Jose Aldo defended his UFC featherweight title as Frankie Edgar suffered yet another close decision loss. The rest of the UFC 156 card scrambled the title chases in ways I’m still working out. Rashad Evans was supposed to fight for the middleweight title, but he lost a dreary light heavyweight fight to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. In the heavyweight division, Alistair Overeem was supposed to fight for the title, but Antonio Silva knocked him out. And now lightweight contender Anthony Pettis says he wants to drop down to featherweight and fight Aldo.

– Steve Holcomb’s four-man sled set a track record in the fourth and final heat to take bronze in the World Championships.

– Noelle Pikus-Pace took silver in the skeleton World Championships.

– Erin Hamlin and Chris Mazdzer each placed sixth in their events at the luge World Championships. They, along with doubles team Matthew Mortensen/Preston Griffall, placed fifth in the team event.

– The U.S. men struggled past Brazil in the Davis Cup. Turned out to be a great first round for North America, with Canada upsetting Spain.

– Katie Compton was second in the elite women’s race at the cyclocross World Championships.

– Helen Maroulis was the Outstanding Wrestler at the Dave Schultz Invitational.

– U.S. sailors at the World Cup stop in Miami: Five golds, three silvers, three bronzes.

– Upcoming: Biathlon and Alpine skiing world championships, some of which will be televised. Also the U.S. men vs. Honduras as World Cup qualifying’s Hexagonal starts.

Rugby’s hierarchy still set in stone

Over the last seven men’s soccer World Cups, 28 teams have reached the quarterfinals (27 if you count Croatia and Yugoslavia as one). Only one country, Germany, has reached that stage all seven times. Then it’s Brazil with six, Argentina five, three with four, two with three, and the rest with one appearance each.

Over all seven men’s rugby World Cups, including the current one, only 12 teams have reached the quarterfinals. Since South Africa was welcomed back into competition in 1995 to pave the way for a future Matt Damon role, it’s just 11. Australia, New Zealand, England, France, South Africa have never missed the quarterfinals, aside from South Africa missing the first two Cups during the apartheid days.

This group is self-reinforcing. The top 12 teams in each World Cup (quarterfinalists plus third-place group finishers) automatically qualify for the next World Cup. The rest of the world plays through a promotion/relegation/playoff scheme so complex it makes the Davis Cup look like the NCAA Tournament. And the International Rugby Board divides teams into tiers, with the top 10 playing either in the Six Nations Championship (Europe) or Four Nations (Southern Hemisphere). The second IRB tier has the seven teams that usually play in the World Cup.

Everyone else is in Tier III, including the other eight teams that have ever played in a World Cup. That’s only 25 teams. Yes, fewer teams have qualified for a 20-team tournament (formerly 16) in seven iterations than have qualified for the quarterfinals of soccer’s World Cup in the same period.

So changes in the rugby hierarchy are marked in glacial terms. But these tiers could still use a little updating.

Tier I: The big five teams are competitive within the group — no team has won it more than twice, and no team has always made the semifinals. But below that, no team has ever made the final.

Tier II: The next tier of four teams includes the three other teams to reach a rugby semifinal — Wales (1987), Scotland (1991) and Argentina (2007). Ireland is in its fifth quarterfinal but has never gone farther. This tier of four has once again accounted for the other three quarterfinal spots this year, with Scotland the odd team out for the first time.

Tier III has the other teams who have reached a quarterfinal, but they’re well back. Before South Africa joined the fun, Fiji reached the 1987 quarterfinals, and Samoa and Canada advanced that far in 1991. Samoa made it back in 1995, Fiji returned in 2007, and Canada hasn’t won more than one game in a Cup since then.

Curiously, the International Rugby Board released new rankings today in the middle of the World Cup. The changes are basically based on one game — Tonga’s upset of France. France fell three spots to No. 8; Tonga leaped four to No. 9. Everyone in between them, therefore, moved one spot in either directions. And yet nothing has really changed — eight of the nine usual suspects are in the quarterfinals.

Here’s how they stand going into those quarterfinals:

Continue reading Rugby’s hierarchy still set in stone

Rugby terms: Or why most people who say “scrum” are wrong

“Oh, and there’s a scrum along the boards,” a hockey commentator might say.

Not likely. A scrum is organized. Players get in specific positions and try to get the ball back to their teammates behind them. In hockey, a faceoff is as close as you’re likely to get to a scrum.

What’s usually called a “scrum” is much closer to a ruck, which happens within the flow of the game in rugby. Any number of players can get involved in the action — if you’re close to the ball or puck, you jump in.

So to keep it straight:

Scrum: Players form interlocking circles with specific positions, and the ball is put into the fray by someone on the outside.

Ruck: The ball is down, during the run of play, and players contest possession. It can get kind of rough.

Maul: Similar to a ruck, but the ball is off the ground.

Darth Maul: Ball is in the air, and players contest possession with light sabers.

Friday Myriad: Bolt vs. Gay, Silva vs. Sonnen, DPs vs. DPs …

If you’re not a fan of American soccer leagues, this isn’t much of a weekend, though some European leagues (France, Netherlands, English Championship) kick off.


2 p.m.: Track and field, Diamond League, Stockholm. Bolt vs. Gay. Great stuff. Universal Sports online


3:35 a.m.: Rugby, Tri-Nations Cup, New Zealand vs. Australia. Travis’ preview will run in an hour or so.

3 p.m.: Harness racing, Hambletonian. We don’t cover much horse racing, but this is seriously the most interesting non-league item on USA TODAY’s listings. NBC

7 p.m.: Soccer, PDL championship. As with the W-League, this game is way too early because the players all need to scramble back to college. FSC

10 p.m.: Mixed martial arts, UFC 117, Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen, Roy Nelson-Junior dos Santos, Jon Fitch-Thiago Alves. Good card. Previews at USA TODAY. Pay-per-view


10 a.m.: Soccer, Community Shield, Chelsea-Manchester United. I tease Eurosnobs, sure, but of course I’m thrilled to see resumption of play in England. FSC

6 p.m.: Soccer, MLS, Dallas-Philadelphia. If you’re a Philly fan, stick around for the next game on FSC

8 p.m.: Soccer, WPS, Philadelphia-Boston. Alternately, you might have made the trip out to West Chester. Yeah, it’s a haul, but isn’t West Chester beautiful? FSC

9 p.m.: Soccer, MLS, Chicago-New York. Counting something like five Designated Players who might be on the field at the same time, which would be a record. Let’s see — Ljungberg, Castillo, Henry, Angel, Marquez. Might not all be ready, though. We had Beckham-cam a couple of years ago when he was on the bench and thinking about coming in — will we see Marquez-cam? ESPN2


  • Full soccer listings at Soccer America: MLS, international friendlies, France, Mexico, Brazil.
  • Selected weekend listings at USA TODAY
  • ESPN3: Lots of tennis and lacrosse, plus Australian Rules football, Dutch soccer and the odd friendly.
  • Tennis Channel: Live and delayed coverage of ATP Washington, WTA San Diego.
  • Universal Sports: Volleyball, beach volleyball, USA Swimming.
  • More Olympic sports: Shooting World Championships continue (live TV).

Friday Myriad: The dog ate it

Things I’ll try to watch this weekend while we finish up a long week of dog-sitting …


8:30 a.m.: Cycling, Tour de France, Stage 18. Flat stage with a likely sprint finish that will help decide the green jersey. Thor SMASH! Thor SMASH! Versus

8 p.m.: Softball, USA-Japan. First game of a lot of World Cup softball on ESPN networks this weekend. Jennie Finch has announced her imminent retirement. ESPN – full schedule of games at USA Softball


6 a.m.: Rugby, Tri-Nations, Australia-South Africa. (pay)

8:30 a.m.: Cycling, Tour de France, Stage 19. Time trial. That’s Andy Schleck’s last real chance to take the yellow jersey from Alberto Contador, but he’s an underdog. Versus

4 p.m.: Action sports, BMX Open. NBC

10 p.m.: Basketball, U.S. national team intrasquad game. World Championships start in late August. LeBron apparently not involved this time, though without a one-hour special, can we be sure? ESPN2


5:30 a.m.: Soccer, USA-Nigeria, U-20 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal. ESPNU/

7:30 a.m.: Cycling, Tour de France, final stage. Possibly a final sprint for the green jersey, but more importantly, time to bid a fond farewell to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen for now. And what will we do with our mornings now? Versus

4 p.m.: Beach volleyball, AVP Long Beach men’s final. ABC

10:30 p.m.: Soccer, Seattle-Colorado. In case you prefer league games to friendlies. Fox Soccer Channel

11 p.m.: Beach volleyball, AVP Long Beach women’s final (same-day). ESPN2


  • Full soccer listings at Soccer America: MLS, international friendlies, U-20 Women’s World Cup, Mexico.
  • Selected weekend listings at USA TODAY
  • ESPN3: U-20 Women’s World Cup, Australian Rules football, CFL, cricket, AAU basketball, tennis, fishing, lacrosse
  • Tennis Channel: Two live ATP tournaments.
  • Universal Sports: Triathlon, World Juniors track and field.
  • More Olympic sports: Handful of U.S. championships and junior competitions.