Rugby sevens attracts U.S. females

When strangers hear Beth Black plays rugby, she gets ready for the disbelief.

A 5-foot-6, 138-pound woman, Black is far removed from the rugby stereotype of a big guy wearing a striped shirt and missing teeth.

"They look at you first," said Black. "Usually they say, 'What? You play rugby?'

"Then it's, 'Don't you [have to] tackle?'"

Yes to both.

Black and her U.S. women's national teammates are hoping they'll have less explaining to do in the next few years.

Despite the perception of danger, or perhaps because of it, rugby is one of the nation's fastest-growing sports, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. More people are playing than ever before -- 1.13 million in 2010, up from 750,000 the year prior and nearly double the 617,000 in 2007.

Women's numbers are also up. According to USA Rugby, the sport's national governing body, 21,840 females played rugby in 2010 at all levels, from kids to adults. That's up 28 percent from 2005. The biggest jump was among high schoolers, where participation shot up 73 percent (3,250 in 2005 to 5,621 last year).

Rugby, along with golf, will be added to the Olympic slate starting with the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janiero.

Just like the men, the women will play a 12-team tournament in rugby sevens, the scaled-down, sped-up version of rugby. (Think arena football to the NFL.)

Rugby sevens means seven-a-side, compared to traditional rugby's 15. It is played on a traditional-sized rugby pitch -- wider and longer than a football field -- which means a more wide-open game that places a premium on speed, fitness and agility.

Sevens also means just seven-minute halves, giving matches a sudden-death feel and allowing for teams to play multiple times a day. Traditional rugby matches have two 40-minute halves.

Dean Rutz for ESPN.com

Rugby is one of the nation's fastest-growing sports. According to USA Rugby, 21,840 females played rugby in 2010 at all levels. That's up 28 percent from 2005.

Black, who has played both versions, is convinced rugby sevens will attract attention as the newest extreme sport at the Summer Games and be the key to the sport's future in this country.

"It's super-fast. The hits are bigger, the speed is [bigger], the creativity," she said. "It's the fancy moves you see -- it's the 'Oooh, ahhh.' You see [that] every now and then in 15s, it just takes forever to get there. For viewers, for a spectator sport, sevens will blow 15s out of the water."

Rugby in general is gaining momentum. The Olympic announcement helped, along with exposure and credibility generated by NBC signing on to broadcast two major collegiate sevens tournaments, including the men's and women's USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship in June.

Chances are it will never become more than a niche sport in a country where the NFL and youth soccer rule. But that doesn't keep somebody like Fiji's Waisale Serevi, the Pele of sevens rugby, from seeing major growth potential here. Serevi, 42, moved to the U.S. late last year after his playing career was over to help popularize the sport.

He started a company, Serevi Rugby Nation, in Seattle in January to conduct player development programs for all ages and skill levels, along with coaching camps and elite training programs. Serevi helped coach a prominent local club, Old Puget Sound Beach, to the men's national sevens title last year and has helped the Central Washington University team prepare for the upcoming national collegiate tournament.

Rugby players argue that their sport gets a bad rap for being dangerous, especially considering the lack of protective equipment when compared to other collision sports such as football and hockey.

A recent death added to this aura and shook up the rugby community. In April, adult player Stephanie Flores died when her head hit the ground while she was making a tackle during a Kansas tournament.

'It makes you kind of wake up and say, 'We're not just playing golf here,'" Black said.

Rugby proponents say serious injury and fatalities are rare compared to other sports. Lack of gear actually makes the sport safer, they say, because it reduces the level of violence and reckless hits. Proper training in falling and tackling -- where rugby players are taught to tackle from the side and never lead with their heads -- helps prevent injuries.

Most players wear mouth guards, and some choose to wear foam shoulder pads and a scrum cap, a helmet similar to those worn by wrestlers. After a concussion, Black now wears the scrum cap and also wears the slim shoulder pads.

Jesenia Torres, 29, is a newcomer to the sport and is hooked. A multi-sport athlete in high school, she took up triathlons, adventure racing and elite fitness competitions when she got older. But she missed team sports.

Ten months ago, she started playing rugby. Torres currently plays for the Seattle Breakers, which plays in Division I, one step below the nation's top club division, the Premier League.

"With being a woman, this is the only tackling sport you can play," Torres said. "When you run and tackle, it's fun. I get why the guys want to do it."

On the national level, both Black and women's national sevens coach Ric Suggitt said the U.S. women have a good shot at a medal in 2016 if they can get more funding and find new talent to replace several veterans who retired after the Americans' top-four finish at the last World Cup.

Some will come from the national 15s squad. But Suggitt is seeking fresh faces too. Starting in September, he'll scour college campuses and events like the U.S. Olympic trials in track and field to get athletes to give rugby a try.

"You need at least three or four world-class sprinters, then you need your grinders and your playmakers," Suggitt said.

He's looking for that sprinter who, perhaps, just missed making the Olympic team for 2012. But is four years enough time to teach someone to reach world-class level at another sport?

"Absolutely," Suggitt said, "in the right environment, with the right coaching."

The best crossover athletes are players in soccer and basketball, and perhaps, lacrosse.

"Soccer helped me understand not necessarily to be looking at players, but looking at the space between the players," said Black, a playmaker who discovered rugby after getting cut from her James Madison University soccer team. "In basketball, players learn to problem-solve with the ball in their hand really quickly."

Black will be 36 when rugby is played at the 2016 Games, too old for most players. She is already making the transition to player-coach in hopes of landing a coaching gig.

"I just think this is such an amazing time for rugby," she said. "I just want to be a part of it in some capacity."

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