The Runner Sports

Ohio Wins Final Fixture But Fail To Win Championship As PRO Rugby Wraps Inaugural Season

In Obetz, Ohio, 140 miles from the NFL Hall of Fame, there was a new king of the gridiron mauling its way into the hearts and minds of sports fans Sunday afternoon. The United States’ new PRO Rugby concluded its inaugural season amid a fantastic match between the league’s top two clubs.

Without a playoff in the five-team league, the schedule set it up to become in essence a championship match by sheer accident. The Denver Stampede and Ohio Aviators playing for the league’s first ever championship cup. Despite coming away with a thrilling 32-25 win in the actual match, Ohio failed to secure the league championship, as the Stampede narrowly secured the cup by way of season points.

For those who don’t regularly follow rugby, or perhaps have recently gotten into the sport and need some refreshing, in rugby union fixture play — to encourage teams to play hard in each event– use a system of points to ensure the most entertaining of matches. 4 points awarded to the winner, 2 for a draw, but teams that score 4 tries in a match pick up an extra point (which both Ohio and Denver achieved in the season’s final match). What kept Ohio from hoisting the cup despite a win is the final bonus point rule that gives an additional point in either the league or table standing to teams that lose by fewer than 7 points in the match. That final point thrust the Stampede into first place with 48 points on the season.

The Ohio Aviators made a mad dashing maul with time expired to push the game-winning try in. Rickert Hattingh broke through the line as the fans in the “Fortress” erupted in thunderous celebration. Despite playing much of the closing minutes down 2 players to yellow cards, the Aviators were still able to hold off the Stampede and make a spirited push in for the win.

What initially was viewed as a game-saving tackle by Chad London will likely be looked back as a championship-winning tackle. Down 7 with just over 10 minutes to play, Ohio wing Aaron Davis made an interception just short of his own try line before making a mad dash down the side. London made his stalking move and cut Davis off just short of Denver’s 22, taking the ball into touch and giving possession back to the Stampede. It was a play that at the time looked as though it would save the game, and while the Stampede ultimately lost, it was likely the save that kept the outcome within 7.

It was a masterful conclusion to the inaugural season that brings professional rugby union to the United States. A spirited game that showcased how far the game came within the short 5-month season. Not to mention, it put into the spotlight just how much ground rugby has gained here in the States.

Long proclaimed the fastest growing team sport in America, US rugby has tapped a special 2016. Rugby (in the form of 7s) returns to the Olympics for the first time since 1924. And while the USA might be defending Olympic gold medalists in the event, the sport had fluttered into obscurity while it has flourished in much of the world. But, back on the rise here in the states, rugby looks to capitalize on its great leaps forward.

The USA rugby participation has been reported as much as 1.2 million players with a 14% growth from 2011 to 2013. And where the fear of injury has caused participation in football to ever so slightly see a decrease, the technique and safety first tackling standards of rugby provides a truly viable alternative.

61,000 people packed a full house at Soldier Field in 2014 in an international match between New Zealand and USA.

The Las Vegas 7s event saw a 30% attendance increase in just the opening day of the multi-day tournament. Over 18,000 fans piled into Sam Boyd Stadium on the first day, and over 80,000 partook in the three-day event.

And while you won’t catch it on its regular broadcasting, the higher bodies that be are very aware of the sport’s growth. ESPN has quietly scooped up the rights to broadcast the new America Rugby Championship while also showcasing the best domestic league in the world in Super Rugby via their WatchESPN platform. NBC Sports has also been a regular coverer for USA 7s and the Rugby World Cup, and will be broadcasting the Aviva Premiership for the first time this season.

The crowd appeal is there, and somebody will look to turn the rise of rugby into a cash cow, which will only put the sport in front of that many more eyes.  And while PRO Rugby had to fend for themselves via wisely streaming on YouTube, a TV/streaming deal cannot be far off for the young organization.

Unlike other internationally savvy sports such as soccer, where the domestic talent level sometimes falls short internationally at times, USA Rugby is already a predominant force. Currently ranked 17th in the World Rugby rankings, USA Rugby is already in a prime spot. Grow the domestic interest and youth development, and USA Rugby could quickly turn into an international standard.

During the PRO Rugby’s concluding matchup, newly appointed USA Rugby CEO, Dan Payne, spoke about the importance of a youth first approach to the growth of the game. “We need to continue building our efforts and support around the 7-12 year-olds, getting the ball in their hands.”

Where many sports have multiple generations familiar with the game, its legends, rules, and fundamentals, there isn’t always that pipeline of love for rugby. Not yet at least. The singular biggest challenge rugby has in overtaking such dominating entities like the NFL, is simply learning the game.

It’s no more complicated than the countless set of rules every couch referee seems to have memorized for the NFL, there simply lacks a life-long involvement in the game and its ins and outs.

It could eventually be wise for PRO Rugby and USA Rugby to form some semblance of a mutual organization. As stateside interest grows, there is already plenty of international bodies looking to tap into that gold mine. Guinness Pro 12 has already mulled the idea of adding an east coast based US team to their mix. Keeping all US rugby under one roof will help ensure all moves are beneficial to the growth of the game domestically as it is for somebody’s pocket.

And where we saw two organization flourish when the NBA went boom or bust in its partnership with USA Basketball back in the 90s, there isn’t quite the same initial excitement to mesh the two organizations into one just yet.

“This is PRO Rugby’s entity, it’s our job as the governing body to help support it and help it have as much success as it can.” Defended PRO Rugby Director of Rugby Operations Steve Lewis when prodded with the question of if the two will look to ever combine their efforts. “How do the two organizations combine to coexist and continue to support each other?”

Lewis also hinted at immediate expansion as the organization heads into its second year. Although he tried to be as tight-lipped as possible, he did mention the plan was to move to 8 teams with plenty of reports that at least one could include a Canadian based team. Whatever’s on the docket, just make sure playoffs get added as quickly as possible, because while Sunday’s deciding match was special in its own right (and heart wrenching in another) a season deciding matchup scheduled before the season starts doesn’t always work out.

While seemingly revolutionary, PRO Rugby isn’t the first dabble into professional rugby here stateside. The USA Rugby League has been in operation since 2011. The league works directly in accordance with the USA Rugby League body. And while independent success falls upon the league ultimately, having that bigger governing body might not be an awful idea.

PRO Rugby also might not be the last dabble of professional rugby stateside. With the growth of the 7s format, we may not be far from seeing a US based 7s league.

The game grows and domestic players might find some new international opportunity as the European circuits approach, but the book closes for the magical first season of PRO Rugby with plenty of excitement for its return.

 

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Tyler Arnold

Tyler Arnold

I am the editor-in-chief of The Runner Sports. I watch more sports than is probably determined healthy and enjoy talking about them all. I am a firm believer in there being a "dropped peanut surcharge" at the ballpark when it's a good throw. Thanks for the read.
Tyler Arnold