It’s a sunny and scorching Sunday afternoon at Memorial Park in Obetz. My companion and I are sitting on the sidelines at our first experience with professional rugby. We can’t help but take notice of the announcer’s awkward yawp when the Ohio Aviators make a deep offensive play. It’s then that we eavesdrop on a couple of faithful fans clad in blue and red Aviators gear.
“I told him earlier he really needs to work on how he says ‘Aaaaaaa-vi-aaaators,’ but I don’t think he heard me,” says the first guy.
“Well you should tell him again,” replies his friend.
Moments later the Aviators score another “try” and it’s obvious by his tone and cadence that the announcer got the message. Such are the foibles that come with planting the flag of a professional sports franchise in its inaugural season, in a part of the country where rugby is an import and terms like “scrum,” “ruck,” and “hooker” are not part of the nomenclature. But as the adage goes, “If you build it, they will come.” At least those are the hopes of Aviators manager and Ohio State men’s rugby coach, Tom Rooney.
“At first it will look odd, but from what we have found people adapt to it very quickly,” says Rooney of what uninitiated spectators can come to expect. “It’s very physical. There’s lots of contact and lots of open field play. When you see someone break a line and make a long run it becomes very obvious the level of athleticism involved in the game.”
Indeed, with constant action and continuous play, the PRO Rugby league, consisting of five initial teams including San Francisco, Denver, Sacramento, and San Diego, can already boast that the game is premiere sports entertainment. Rugby is a complex game filled with precise rules and unfamiliar plays, but it should look very simple to the casual viewer—if only because the game combines elements of football, soccer, and basketball with a clear objective: get the ball into the opponent’s territory.
Today’s match against the Breakers of San Diego has the strategy and camaraderie of the Columbus Crew, but also the random pugilism of the Blue Jackets, minus the pads. After a brutal (and illegal) tackle is made, Jamie Mackintosh, the Aviators’ star “prop” from New Zealand, retaliates with fisticuffs. A melee ensues. As Mackintosh leaves the field with a yellow card, the crowd cheers. PRO Rugby isn’t afraid to give the people what they want.
Why central Ohio? Though organized rugby has been played around the world for over a century, it didn’t take in the states until the ’60s where it only appeared in clubs and universities, and was primarily known more for its social perks rather than as a recognized sport. That said, the OSU men’s team is celebrating their 50th anniversary, so to wit, rugby has had a long tradition in Columbus.
“Ohio got a chance because we have the infrastructure,” says Rooney. “We’ve already hosted a number of rugby events over the years, and we took the initiative to create what was needed to have a rugby team. That includes a regulation field, which is much larger than a football field, and the ability to hold anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 people for a match.”
Rooney should know: he found rugby at Ohio State in 1978 when he didn’t make the cut for the wrestling team, and has been ensconced in promoting the sport ever since.
“There was a niche of rugby fans and players who wanted what we are building,” says Rooney of the impetus for developing a professional league. “Our season doesn’t try to compete with any other major sport, so our goal for right now is just making people aware that professional rugby exists and improving the fan base from there.”
First, though, you’ll need to explain the infamous “scrum” to non-believers. It’s perhaps the sport’s most distinctive feature, wherein teams interlock in a reverse tug-of-war to fight for possession of a loose ball. Odd is right, but it just might be the spark that guides millennials toward rugby as America’s new summer pastime. Given the crowd’s enthusiasm on this given Sunday, PRO Rugby shouldn’t be a hard sell.
The Aviators play the final game of their inaugural season Sunday, July 31 vs. the Denver Stampede. Visit prorugby.org for tickets and more information.