An ESPN writer caused an uproar when he suggested America would be the best at rugby if they tried. Madeleine Chapman agrees.
This story was published in June 2018.
He may have been ambitious in his timeline, but ESPN writer Kevin Van Valkerburg was right on the money when he tweeted earlier this week that football players would dominate if they played rugby. Naturally, he got hundreds of angry responses from rugby fans all over the world and successfully found the true national psyche of New Zealand: insecurity.
If NFL players decided to play rugby, America would dominate at world level. Of course they would. The argument isn’t whether American Football or rugby produces better athletes (though the answer is still American Football with a few exceptions) it’s simply a question of whether the athletes who excel in the NFL would also excel playing rugby. And the answer is of course.
It’s not even a question.
Americans train different. With the way kids are raised through their sports in America, there are very few sports they wouldn’t dominate if they simply chose to pursue it. The way that Americans train means that by the time athletes get to the top leagues, their athleticism is unmatched.
New Zealand simply doesn’t mass produce athletes like that because we don’t train the same. Kenny McFadden knew this while coaching basketball in Wellington for two decades. He finally found someone he could train like an American and now Steven Adams is paid $20 million to play with the Americans. If Americans wanted to invest in and play rugby, they’d be the best in the world.
Back in New Zealand, we live off the success of the All Blacks. World Champions. Greatest rugby team in history. The Best. Just as basketball, baseball and football players seek out America to be the best, rugby players from all over the world come to New Zealand to prove their worth. It’s incredible. We’re the greatest rugby nation in the world. And yet our insecurity around what that really means leads us to anger when someone dares suggest that our beloved rugby players aren’t the most impressive athletes the world’s ever seen.
The reality is, rugby is not a skilful sport. The All Blacks are clearly skilled players (as expected at the top of any sport) but the game itself is remarkably simple. There’s a reason it’s such a popular social sport; it’s easy to pick up. Basketball is a sport that requires a very specific skill set. Soccer is the same. Rugby simply requires great athletes.
American football players are already more athletic than rugby players across the board and have all the necessary skills it takes to be great rugby players. Why? Because there aren’t many skills. Catching, passing, kicking, spatial awareness, movement off the ball. They’re all skills required in a number of other sports, and to a higher degree. Few top athletes in other codes would require additional skills to play rugby. Any AFL player could beat the best rugby player under a high ball. Wide receivers would be just fine.
A common argument against NFL players is that they wouldn’t last 80 minutes. If rugby was truly played over 80 minutes, its players wouldn’t last either. Football has regular stoppages between plays but each play is run at full capacity, with mental and physical engagement peaking. To think that those same players who can stay focused and perform short bursts of extreme speed and power over three hours wouldn’t last 80 minutes of rugby is naive at best.
Rugby is full of stoppages. Putting aside lineouts and scrums, rugby players, especially backs, spend surprisingly little time engaging at full capacity. A 17 phase possession across a half may be an impressive rugby feat but for the backs who feature once or twice, it’s a rest.
The funny thing about athletes is that while they train for their code, their athleticism isn’t limited to the duration of their matches. Just because someone is a world-class 200m sprinter doesn’t mean they’re suddenly useless over 400m. American football players might play a game full of stoppages but that doesn’t mean they train full of stoppages. They’re some of the most impressive athletes in the world.
The ‘improvised’ nature of rugby has similarly been touted as a perceived barrier for football players. But it’s that same ad hoc nature of rugby that would make it so easy for athletes from other codes to excel. To think football players can’t improvise is to reveal a real ignorance of the game. Watch any intercept play in the NFL and see improvisation at its finest. Defensive linemen become offensive blockers. Wide receivers become the first line of defence. It’s the equivalent of the forward pack suddenly having to form a backline, all in a split second.
As for the pads thing, rather than baulk at the lack of padding, football players would have to tone down their explosiveness when playing rugby. Going from the massive impact of football where collisions happen from both players moving at speed, the near static nature of rugby’s defensive line will be a drop in physicality. The transition to a less physical form of tackling would take some time but a full transition wouldn’t occur. Instead, I believe if American football players started playing rugby, they’d change the game to suit themselves and everyone else would have to adjust. There are four sports that attract similar athletes with related skillsets. Rugby, Rugby League, Australian Rules, and American Football. Of the four, rugby is neither the fastest, longest, toughest, or most skilful.
There are some rugby players who very well may have made great football players if raised in America. But the stream runs down from football to rugby, not the other way around.
If rugby became a lucrative sport in America, they wouldn’t even need their best NFL athletes playing to dominate. Spend a decade transitioning some of the top high school running backs into a backline and some handy linebackers into a scrum and they’d be away running with the World Cup. While we as a country might be too insecure to admit it, we should just be grateful that America will probably never care enough about rugby to try.