Sick of World Cup Hype? Try International Rugby

The US national rugby team faces off against Scotland in an international friendly on Saturday.

By Silvia Pera June 6, 2014

The Scottish national team practices on Thursday at BBVA Compass Stadium.

Image: Silvia Pera

USA Rugby Versus Scotland
June 7 at 7pm
$20 and up
BBVA Compass Stadium
2200 Texas St. 

In the run-up to the World Cup, which kicks off next week in Brazil, sports fans everywhere are turning their focus to international soccer. But if you’re tired of all the hype, or just want to check out something different, a rugby match this weekend between the US and Scottish national teams offers a preview of the other World Cup—the Rugby World Cup, which will take place in England in fall 2015. Rugby is among America’s fastest-growing sports, and the number one fastest-growing youth sport, yet in this country it retains its reputation as an “alternative” sport. If, like most Americans, you’ve never seen a full rugby match, you can cross that item off your bucket list at tomorrow night’s friendly at BBVA Compass Stadium, home of the Houston Dynamo and Dash. The game also offers a preview of next year’s World Cup, where the US and Scotland have been assigned to the same group.

This Saturday’s test match may alter the world standings, with Scotland defending their 10th-place ranking and the US, currently ranked number 18, fighting to break into the top tier. (New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia currently sit atop the leaders board.) But at a press conference on Thursday, US coach Mike Tolkin admitted that his team was unlikely to beat the Scotsmen, on Saturday or at the World Cup. “We have a lot of ground to cover before that,” he said, chuckling.  

US team captain Todd Clever (left) and Scottish player Gordon Reid (right)

Instead, Tolkin said the team is focusing on developing young players who have benefited from the game’s rising popularity in the US. That partly explains why Houston is hosting its third international rugby game. “The IRB chooses Houston in part because of the local rugby teams and the strong organizing team,” said USA Rugby’s communications manager Laura Gill. “There has also been lots of success at the [BBVA Compass] stadium and it’s a good size for us. And Houston is a good market for sports enthusiasm.”

Houston’s local rugby teams include Rugby Texas, which has middle and high school teams and whose president, Rick Marshall, has been heavily involved in drumming up support for the game.

“We’ve started coordinating with HISD to put rugby into the core curriculum in 47 schools,” Marshall said. “We are working with the PE teachers and classes to teach rugby, and next September all 300 elementary schools will teach rugby.” The US team is depending on such outreach efforts to recruit better-trained, well-rounded athletes.

“We’ve come a long way,” Tolkin said. “We’re a big country with a big population who is sports crazy, and people have taken to rugby tremendously. These types of games are fantastic because they promote our game in a great way and they give young players people to watch. I want them to look at these guys as their role models. That’s what this game means to us.” 

Saturday’s test match has already outsold Houston’s previous two international matches. And the US team may have one edge—they’re presumably more accustomed to the heat than a team from often-chilly Scotland. Although the game will be played at night, Scotland’s team doctor James Robson is still concerned about the temperature in the open-air stadium. “We’re trying to use the fact that the boys are jetlagged and in another time zone to get them up early and out to train in the morning when the heat is going to mimic what we get in the evening,” Robson said. Both team coaches assured Houstonia that their teams will take the match seriously, and that the heat will not stop their players from playing their best for the Houston crowd

Although the heat may work to their advantage, the US team is facing an uphill battle. The US is a Tier II country while Scotland is not only in the highest tier but also one of the dominant world rugby powers. Games such as Saturday's have recently become popular as a way to improve the skill level of lower-tier teams and to increase competitiveness at international matches. However, such games can also help the better team prepare for later, more important matches. 

“[The US] has got great athletic abilities and they’ve got players playing in official games, so their experience is at the same level,” said Scottish team coach Vern Cotter. “They’re playing for their country and that brings a lot of emotions to the game as well. And with that emotion comes their physical nature. That’s part of the culture of this country—physical contact games are appreciated.”

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