Growing National Interest Reflected in Utah

Story by Connor Wallace

With the induction of seven man rugby into the Olympics, public interest for the sport has gone up rather quickly.  In most other countries rugby is one of the more popular sports, especially in Europe, New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa, South Africa and Australia.  In fact, rugby spawned football, which is better known in the U.S.

However popular the sport may be in other distant countries, it’s lacking attention in the U.S., but changes are occurring rapidly at the local level.  Utah has a strong rugby base and it continues to grow.

A person who has never seen a rugby game before would most likely be confused with the rules and even the simplest aspects of the game.  Rugby is a sport that combines the endurance that a soccer player would need, the strength that a football player would require and the strategy that would be found in chess.  Explaining the details of the game would require a novel, and there are many out there.  An easy way to explain it is that it’s football without pads, a timeout is only taken for an injury or for a penalty, passing the ball forward is prohibited and the players wear short shorts.

The increase in popularity and change in public reception of rugby isn’t any more apparent than in Utah.  Rugby’s popularity in Utah is in large part due to the large Polynesian population in Utah.  Rugby is one of the more popular sports in their culture.  According to the U.S. Census Bureau 4% of all the native Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders that live in the U.S., live in Utah; this is just behind Hawaii and California.

Utah has the most successful high school rugby team in the nation, two of the best collegiate club teams, the youngest rugby player to ever have played in the Rugby World Cup lives in Utah and a number of other players who come from Utah have suited up to play for the U.S.A. Eagles, America’s national rugby team.  With this type of success at all levels in Utah, rugby will continue to flourish.

Highland Rugby Club is by far one of the best high school rugby teams to have played.  In the club’s 32 year history it has won 19 national championships.  The club’s success was even made into the movie, “Forever Strong.”  Highland has brought attention to rugby not only in Utah but also around all of the U.S.  Highland, however, is not the only impressive rugby team in the state.  United Rugby Club is another powerhouse rugby team in Utah, and the state championship usually comes down to Highland and United.

Former United and University of Utah rugby player Bryce Jenkins had this to say about his experience with rugby, “I had been a long time fan of the sport, and when I got the opportunity to play I took it.  Playing football in the fall, rugby was the perfect sport to play to become a better athlete with an opposing season to football.”

An individual going from playing football to rugby isn’t very uncommon; however going from rugby to football is uncommon, but this is the story of Thretton Palamo. Palamo’s family is originally from Samoa, but he was born in California.  His father played for Samoa’s national team, and his brothers both played for the U.S. Sevens rugby team.  He originally came to Utah to play rugby for the University of Utah, and after two impressive seasons he received a scholarship to play for the university’s football team.

Arguably his most impressive accomplishment is that he was the youngest player to ever play for a national team in the Rugby World Cup.  He made his first appearance when he was just 19 years old.  If he is as successful on the football field as he has been on the rugby pitch, then the University of Utah is in for a treat.

Two of the most successful collegiate rugby teams in the U.S. both reside in Utah.  BYU and the University of Utah are at the top of the collegiate rankings every year.  The Utes finished in the final four last spring, and BYU finished their season in the national championship game against the University of California Berkley where they lost a tightly contested game.

Current University of Utah rugby coach, and former U.S.A. Eagle Blake Burdette believes that rugby’s future is at the collegiate level.  “The future is bright. With the announcement of having rugby in the Olympics, is huge for our sport. I would imagine that you will see more and more universities embracing the sport because of the Olympic inclusion. If rugby is going to continue to grow, it has to be at the grassroots level and at the universities.”

Reiterating what Burdette said, success at the lower levels in rugby will continue on into the upper levels.  This is portrayed well by Jason Pye.  Jason Pye began playing rugby when he was a senior in high school.  With such little time to learn the game, he went on to play for the University of Utah, U.S.A. Eagles 15-man team and started for the Eagles seven-man team.

Pye thinks that the future of rugby resides with the success of the game in the Olympics.  “I think rugby 7’s will be a major sport in America in the next 5-10 years due to the acceptance of the game into the 2016 Olympics.  In 20 years, who knows? I can only dream about its success.”

The success of rugby in the U.S. has progressed leaps and bounds in such a short amount of time.  The advancing popularity of rugby in Utah is a microcosm of the growth that is taking place within the United States.  Rugby has the potential to become one of the most popular sports in America, not just in distant countries.