Rugby Players, Not Crossovers

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PHILADELPHIA, PA – All of the players who competed in Las Vegas this weekend at the USA 7s are rugby players. When we call them rugby players, that doesn’t mean we assume the only sport they’ve ever played or ever will play is rugby. That is what they are doing now. Recognize that.

Courtesy of USA Rugby
Courtesy of USA Rugby

Every HSBC 7s tournament, some announcer, at least once, mentions that Zack Test used to play “American football.” Who cares?

Is the idea that any fans of American football watching will now think that Test is a legitimate athlete? Umm…Watch him play! His legitimacy speaks for itself. Is the idea that rugby fans will think this is an interesting biographical tidbit? If that is the only tidbit used, it ceased to be interesting several years ago.

I don’t want to hear that Zack Test is a former football player. Test has been a rugby player for a long time now. He’s a really good sevens player.

This reliance on describing American rugby players by other sports they played needs to end. The term “crossover athlete” is meaningless and should be used in only the rarest circumstances, if even then.  The idea that one enterprise will prepare us for other, sometimes later, enterprises is true in all sorts of situations, athletic and otherwise.

Zack_Test Vegas7s Paul_Rudman
*Thanks to Paul Rudman!

The label is most likely to be applied to rugby players from Tier 2 or Tier 3 nations and de-emphasizes their commitment to rugby and rugby skills. If they succeed in rugby, it is because of something they learned somewhere else.

Yes, Carlin Isles was a sprinter. He’s a rugby player now. He’s devoted years to his craft as a rugby player. Why diminish that by giving him an identity that is non-rugby first. Sure, tell the story of a young man putting the Olympics in his sites and then working to reach that target. It’s a good story. But the athlete going to the Olympics is a rugby player.

Matt Banahan’s first sport – a one player I picked out of thin air – according to him was hockey, then cricket. Should we refer to him as a crossover athlete? That’d be silly. He is a rugby player.  Rugby players in Tier 1 nations also have sporting histories filled with things other than rugby, but we don’t fixate on those histories.

Sonny Bill Williams, with his career in boxing, isn’t a crossover athlete. He is an athlete who boxes and plays rugby.

Zack Test is not a crossover athlete. He is a rugby player. Why mention that he used to play American football? Because there is some sense that if America could convert all football players to rugby players, we’d enter a new epoch of rugby in the world? Because there is a sense that Stupid Americans don’t really know about rugby, so the only way America might be successful on the rugby pitch is through stealing athletes from other sports and then giving them to foreign coaches?

Based on the research, it would not be a good thing if all of the rugby players in America, or anywhere else, played rugby and only rugby from their earliest encounters with sport. A variety of athletic endeavors as a child improves the chances of succeeding at an elite level.

The narrative needs to be that USA rugby teams are made up of rugby players with a variety of backgrounds.  It’s that simple.

A Few Other Things That Wind Me Up

Now that I’ve wound myself up about a phrase that, in the big picture of events in the world, is not such a big deal, I’m going to keep going. Because of the Olympics, there is more being written about rugby in the US. A few things:

1) There is a difference between rugby in the USA and USA Rugby. USA Rugby is one entity, the national governing body of the sport. There are other entities, many affiliated with but not run by USA Rugby, that are pushing the sport forward in America. To think that the growth of rugby in America is all down to USA Rugby is a mistake. Yet, often, USA Rugby and USA rugby (see, the difference can be easy to miss) are treated as the same thing.  They are not the same.


2) The “sleeping giant” metaphor is both overused and imprecise. George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” is a great read and lays out clear standards for good metaphors.  The sleeping giant of rugby is a bad metaphor.  I’ve mentioned my distaste for this metaphor before, but somehow that one sentence didn’t change the world. Perhaps a better metaphor is a battle ship in dry dock. The thing is still be constructed, work is being done, and when it sails it will be dangerous. How dangerous will depend on how well it is constructed.  Maybe that isn’t the best metaphor, but at least it is something different.

3) Everyone who cares, and many who don’t care, knows that the USA is the gold medal holder in Olympic rugby. Bringing this up is like bringing up that, “Actually, Champagne can only be made in a particular region of France, so everything else is just sparkling wine.” Yes, we all know. No one is impressed or edified by hearing this.

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About Jake Frechette 125 Articles
Jake Frechette lives outside of Philly, where he is engrossed enough in rugby that he sometimes forgets that when he talks about the Eagles, most people assume he means the NFL flock. He once played both tight head and inside center in the same game, which shows that he is strong, handsome and has nice hair. One of the things he finds most enjoyable in the rugby world is that Andrew Hore is a Hooker and he can't wait until his sons are old enough to giggle at that one with him.