A first-person introduction to the sport of rugby sevens. This is the second in a series that will explore some of the less well-known sports that are going on in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Share story

Editor’s note: With the Olympics in full swing, we asked Seattle Times reporting intern Kristen Gowdy to get the full experience on some of the sports being played in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. First in our series was equestrian eventing, which you can read about here. Next up in our series: rugby…

Rules: For the first time since 1924, rugby is back in the Olympic program. And although the sport can be played both 15-a-side and seven-a-side, Olympic officials elected for sevens in Rio, a “faster, shorter adaption” of the game, according to the Rio 2016 website.

With just seven-minute halves, rugby will be one of the quickest team sports in Rio. But it will be a fast-paced 14 minutes, as the game hardly ever stops action.

“In the Olympics, you’re looking at a lot of pace, and a big engine,” Justin Fitzpatrick, Seattle Saracens rugby union club director, said. “The play will only stop if it goes out of bounds or if there’s an offense committed or someone scores.”

Similar to American football, play begins with a kickoff at center field. But from there, the sports differ greatly, even though football originally evolved from rugby.

In rugby, players cannot pass forward, which means the best method for forward progression is an all-out sprint. Formation is key because as soon as an athlete is about to get tackled, he or she can pass the ball backwards to a waiting teammate, who can continue the advance or pass backwards again to the next in line.

Play doesn’t stop for tackles, either. Once a player is tackled, they work to place the ball as far away from their body as possible. From there, a ruck ensues with one player from each team battling for the ball without use of their hands. The athletes work to get the ball out of the ruck to a waiting teammate, who resumes the attack.

There are several ways to score. A “try” is worth five points, and like football, will be followed by the chance for a two-point “conversion,” an attempt to dropkick the ball through the goal posts.

Additionally, players can attempt a “drop goal” at any point during the match in which they try to dropkick the ball through the posts. However, play does not stop for these attempts, so the athlete must have adequate space and time. Drop goals are worth three points. Finally, a serious foul can result in a penalty kick, which, if converted, is worth three points as well.

“It’s very high-paced, very high-scoring,” Fitzpatrick said. “If you’re looking at it as a layman, not having watched it before, football is an abbreviation of rugby, it comes from rugby. You can see some of the things, although the play is much more constant. It’s kind of similar, rugby is just a little more fluid.”

Team USA and rugby in the Olympics: The United States is, funnily enough, the reigning Olympic men’s rugby champion, as the 1924 U.S. men’s squad defeated France 17-3 to claim the gold medal.

Much has changed in the ensuing 92 years. Both the men’s and women’s United States teams were in the conversation for a medal in Rio but neither team is considered a powerhouse. That title belongs to New Zealand for both the men and the women.

The United States women, whose competition has already concluded in Rio, lost to eventual runner-up New Zealand in the quarterfinal round after finishing third in Pool A. Australia ended up winning gold, defeating New Zealand 24-17 in the championship.

Prior to the Olympics, the women’s United States squad was ranked seventh in the world and is led by six players who were on the team that won silver at last year’s Pan American Games in Toronto.

Men’s competition concludes with the final on Thursday. On the United States men’s side, veteran Madison Hughes is the United States’ all-time leading scorer on the HBSC World Rugby Sevens Series. Meanwhile, New England Patriot Nate Ebner was granted a leave of absence from NFL training camp to represent his country. The men’s team is ranked 17th in the world.

“They’re both realistically in the conversation for a medal,” Fitzpatrick said. “Both have won some tournaments over the past two years.”

Training/feasibility of getting into the sport: Cross-training for rugby varies immensely depending on the version of the game. In 15-a-side, there is a much larger emphasis on bodybuilding and strength training over speed, as the game requires less running.

The seven-a-side game is a more balanced, cardio-first game. Speed is a huge advantage, though size doesn’t hurt, either.

Rugby is easy and inexpensive to get into, as well. The Saracens, which has been ranked as the top rugby club in the U.S., offer options for all levels of athletes.

“Rugby is a really great sport in that it’s a game for all shapes and sizes,” Fitzpatrick said. “The other really positive aspect of rugby as well is that while we cater to the elite, we also run programs for anybody to play, which is perhaps different than many traditional American sports.”

My experience: Because I had no plans to end up in the hospital that day, I jumped in for some minimal contact drills with one of the Saracen teams. It was incredibly fast, and I was surprised by the amount of decision-making that goes into each play. But I guess that could apply to most team sports.

The hardest part for me — besides getting winded almost immediately, I’m not in shape at all — was staying behind my teammates for backwards passes. Every athletic instinct I’ve accumulated over my years of team sports was telling me to run forward for a pass, and it took a lot to restrain myself.

Kristen Gowdy passes the ball during a rugby practice at the Seattle Saracens Rugby Club at Magnuson Park on July 21. (Stefanie Loh / The Seattle Times)

The passing felt strange to me as well. The ball, which is slightly larger than a football, fit awkwardly in my hands, and finding a grip quickly wasn’t easy at first. By the third or fourth drill, I had a bit more of a feel for it.

I could immediately see myself getting hooked on this sport. As someone who grew up with the fairly typical sports background — basketball, soccer, softball — much of the game felt natural to me.