Now, thanks to a convergence of developments that include the popularity of a condensed version called Rugby Sevens, its renewed Olympic status, its appeal to content-hungry TV programmers, and its links to football, America's historic neglect of the sport devised 188 years ago in the English midlands may at last be coming to an end.
"Every American is familiar with the terms rugby and scrum, but they've never had a chance to expose themselves to the sport," said Donal Walsh, a longtime player and coach with the Blackthorn Rugby Club of Elkins Park. "But now, with Sevens, they're getting a quick version of how to understand the game, and they're getting hooked right away."
On June 4 and 5 at Chester's PPL Park, 16 men's and eight women's teams will compete in the 2011 USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championships, a two-day event that, for a second straight year, will be televised by NBC.
Physicality and scoring
An Olympic staple until 1924, rugby will return to the Games in 2012 when Sevens will be an exhibition sport in London. Four years later, at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, national teams will begin competing for medals.
Drawn by its speed and contact, high school and college football players increasingly are turning to the game as a springtime training activity. Offensive lineman Danny Watkins, the Eagles' No. 1 draft choice, was a rugby star. So was middle linebacker Stewart Bradley, who played on a national championship team at a Utah high school with Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Haloti Ngata.
"There's a physicality and scoring potential that we like in our sports," Lyle said.
While exact levels of participation are difficult to gauge, the sport's rapid expansion here and around the world is undeniable. Once played primarily in British Commonwealth nations, Europe and the Pacific region, the new rugby boom has reached into China, Africa, the United State and elsewhere.
That trend may be most significant in the United States, where NBC and other broadcasters have noticed. A 2011 study by England's Coventry University found that rugby participation by Americans had increased 18 percent in recent years.
According to a Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association survey, rugby is this nation's fastest growing sport, with more than a 1.2 million Americans having participated in some fashion during 2010. (That number may be high since rugby's international officials estimate that there are 5 million players in 137 countries.)
Across the United States, there are hundreds of men's and women's rugby clubs, the bulk concentrated in eastern Pennsylvania, New England, Northern California and Salt Lake City, where visiting Polynesian Mormons helped popularize the game.
The eastern Pennsylvania Rugby Union is the second-largest of USA Rugby's seven regional governing bodies, surpassed in membership only by New England's. More than 6,000 men and women play organized rugby in the region that includes Eastern and Central Pennsylvania, South Jersey and Delaware.
That local expansion has been aided by this area's large Irish population. Wildly popular in Ireland, rugby in Philadelphia and the rest of the Northeast has retained a strong Irish flavor, with beer, music and shamrocks as much a part of the culture as muddy scrums.
"There's a density of population in the Greater Philadelphia area, a strong [Irish] expat element and 60 universities," said Lyle, who also is the president of USA Rugby Sevens. "And, traditionally, that's where the game has been played."
Camaraderie is key
The game's real spurt has occurred at the high school and college levels. According to USA Rugby, there are 3,000 U.S. high schools where students play organized rugby, many of them for teams that combine two or more schools.
"In this area in particular, you've got a constant flow of kids coming through the high school and college systems looking for a place to play," said Lyle, who also played football at VMI. "If you're in a rugby club within an hour of Philadelphia, you can play 15 to 20 teams."
The Downingtown Football Rugby Club, for example, includes players from both Downingtown East and West high schools on its youth teams. More than 300 boys and girls play at various age levels in that 15-year-old league.
"Rugby has a camaraderie that's unlike anything in any other sport," said Scott Brown, the league's general manager.
Overall, there are nearly 50 Philadelphia-area high schools where rugby is played either as school-supported teams or independent clubs. And that number, Lyle said, is expanding by five to seven teams annually.
"One of the key points in the sport's growth is that the average football fan and player has a great respect for and great inquisitive nature toward rugby," Walsh said. "It's a little bit of basketball, football and soccer rolled into one. The more they see it, the more kids are going to want to play it and the more people are going to want to watch on TV."
Collegiately, schools such as Penn State and Temple have rugby teams, though because of budgetary and Title IX concerns these tend to be club or "virtual varsity" sports and not NCAA–sanctioned activities.
While there's little hope rugby will become an NCAA men's sport anytime soon, in 2002 the organization did classify it as an "emerging sport" for women. Currently there are only five NCAA varsity women's programs, including one at West Chester University.
"Our goal is [for all college teams] to become varsity and sanctioned," Lyle said. "There are probably 15 to 20 schools nationwide that have built 2,000- to 10,000-seat rugby-specific facilities that other sports can use. We understand budgets and Title IX, but there's a real potential for growth here."
What's helping in this expansion, certainly here in the United States, is the increasing popularity of Rugby Sevens.
The more traditional version of the game has 15 players a side, and its two halves take longer than 80 minutes. Rugby Sevens is played on the same field but with two teams of seven playing two seven-minute halves.
"Twenty minutes is perfect for Americans and our sitcom mentality," said Lyle, who played professional rugby in England.
The difference is like that between traditional football and the sport's seven-on-seven passing drills, a swifter version that appeals to America's sporting sensibilities.
"In 15s, it's more like traditional football where possession is the key. In Sevens, it's like having seven Jamelle Holieways [the legendary Oklahoma option QB] on the field at once," Lyle said. "You've got all these guys with option skills who have great movement, who can see the entire field. You can be small and quick, fat and quick, tall and quick. Doesn't matter as long as you're quick."
The Sevens version tends to be played on weekends or in the summer, and its players are those hoping to hone their skills for traditional rugby. Right now, Lyle noted, there are no Sevens specialists.
"There's 100 percent crossover," he said. "The players who are coming into Sevens have all played 15s."
If rugby Sevens ever do spin off into a separate sport, it won't be the first.
College football sprang directly from rugby, which was played widely on U.S. campuses in the last decades of the 19th century. Eventually, people such as Walter Camp tinkered with the rules enough that rugby morphed into American football.
"Camp added downs," Lyle said. "The scrum became the scrimmage line. The positions in football are positions in rugby. Halfbacks needed a person to get them the ball, and he invented a position called quarterback. Guards guarded the guy who rolled the ball back. The tackles would actually spring across and tackle the opposition.
"So football is essentially rugby. What American couldn't love that?"
Rugby Q and A
Here are some details of rugby when it is played with teams of 15. Sevens rugby, which features teams of seven players each, is slightly different:
Who wins? The goal is to score the most points.
How long do they play? Matches are two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime break.
What positions do they play? Eight of the 15 players are forwards, similar to the linemen and linebackers in football. Seven players are backs, similar to the backs and "skill positions" in football.
How do they advance the ball? The ball can be moved by carrying it or kicking it, but it cannot be passed forward. If the ball is passed forward, it is called a "knock on" and results in a scrum. It can be passed backward.
What is a scrum? A scrum is used to restart play after some infractions and involves each team's forwards coming together at the shoulders in a line and trying to knock the ball back to their team's side. It's similar to a tip-off in basketball.
Are there other ways to restart play? If a ball is kicked or taken out of bounds, it is restarted by a "lineout," which is similar to the throw-in in soccer.
How do they score points? A "try" is like a football touchdown and worth five points. A "conversion" is like a football extra-point kick and worth two points. A "penalty kick" through the uprights is worth three points, and a "drop goal" is like a football drop-kick and worth three points.
Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or email@example.com.