Fast forward to the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where television viewers will see a sport that hasn’t been on that stage in nearly a century.
Rugby, which has been a longtime fixture in other parts of the world, is now the fastest-growing sport in the United States, with participation rates soaring 81 percent between 2008 and 2013, the Sports & Fitness Industry Association reported.Those changes are being felt locally, too, as the Eastside Lions Youth Rugby Club has seen its membership numbers climb rapidly since its inception in 2007.Ray Keane, who began coaching with the Lions five years ago, said the club has grown from about 30 players to more than 150 in that time period, and expects to keep adding athletes, teams and playing opportunities for the foreseeable future.
There’s a burgeoning relationship between football and rugby, however, because the skills are closely related. Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, for example, has implemented rugby-style tackling among his players, helping them reduce concussions and other serious-injury rates. Part of that connection stems from Waisale Serevi, who can be aptly described as the Michael Jordan of the rugby world. He played in seven World Cups for his native Fiji (three appearances in the 15-man game, four in seven-a-side) and captained Fiji to the World Cup Sevens titles in 1997 and 2005. He came to the Seattle area in 2010, where he founded Serevi Rugby as a way to grow the sport among young people. Serevi has now rebranded as Atavus, with a dual focus on football and rugby, and Waisale can often be found at Newport High School in Bellevue lending a hand with the Lions’ junior varsity and varsity squads. While children in this country might be more familiar with football, basketball or soccer, Serevi thinks those sports can easily translate to the rugby field and vice-versa.
“I think rugby is much easier to play,” Serevi said. “I mean, just the shorts and the T-shirts and off you go. This is the best age to learn. When I started, I was doing it at this age, 14 or 15, and for them to come do rugby, it’s good.”