Illinois rugby fighting for popularity

While baseball and football are considered America’s pastimes, rugby is a sport that is rapidly gaining popularity and attention in the United States.

Not only is rugby growing nationwide, but it is also becoming more relevant here at the University thanks to the Illinois men’s rugby team.

“Technically, Illinois men’s rugby is a club sport. However, we take it as seriously as a varsity sport when it comes to practicing, competing and representing our school,” said Rich Daniels, vice president of the team.

Rugby is one of the fastest growing team sports in America of the past five years according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, and rugby participation grew almost 350 percent in the United States between 2004 and 2011 alone.

Perhaps the area of the country that has seen the biggest boom in the prevalence of rugby is the Midwest, and popularity has grown specifically in Illinois. Earlier this month, Chicago’s Soldier Field played host to the most-attended international match on U.S. soil ever, with a crowd of 61,500. Even though the USA Eagles lost to the New Zealand All Blacks, this undoubtedly shows the increase in the popularity of rugby in the Midwest.

The Illinois men’s rugby club wants to try to continue this upward trend of popularity in the United States while also trying to increase participation on the Champaign-Urbana campus. One of the many ways the club does this is by competing in the most competitive division of collegiate rugby in the nation, Division 1-A. Collegiate rugby is operated by USA Rugby, and is not controlled by the NCAA.

“As a D1-A team, it is imperative that we help grow rugby so that we can appeal to athletes on campus to help grow our team,” Daniels explained. “If we fail to do this, we will quickly fall behind, because each year the league becomes more and more competitive.”

Rugby will also be a part of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, which has given the sport increased media attention and has contributed further to the growth of the sport worldwide. Rugby has not been in the Olympics since the 1924 games in Paris.

Daniels is as excited as any rugby fan in the country.

“Having rugby in the Olympics is huge for the growth of the sport in the U.S.,” Daniels said. “It is another opportunity for elite athletes to show themselves and represent their country on an international scale. We are very excited to see how this will affect our generation and future generations of the game.”

Rugby is gaining attention and popularity faster than any other sport in the nation, but Daniels and his team are anything but satisfied.

“For Illinois men’s rugby, our ultimate goal is to reach as many people as possible on campus and introduce them to the game,” Daniels said. “One of the only things holding us back is the fact that rugby is still foreign to many people. But, if we could somehow familiarize the game with athletes and the University of Illinois community in general, we could have a much larger impact in collegiate rugby as well as have more support and a larger following on campus.”

For Illinois men’s rugby, playing the sport is not only a hobby, but a passion, and the team’s goal is to get other students on campus to fall in love with rugby the same way that the team has.

While the fall rugby season may be coming to a close, Illinois will be back in action in the spring as the team continues to help the growth and development of rugby on campus.

Will can be reached at [email protected] and on twitter @will_small_.