In America rugby is not yet soccer, which is gradually emerging as a favorite schoolyard game. Still, a sturdy few hardheads play it.

Some of America's best hardheads will converge in Tempe this weekend to try out for the U.S. Eagles, a national all-star team. By Sunday afternoon, the 25 Americans invited to the camp will be whittled down to a ten-player roster. The Eagles' spring schedule will take them to tournaments in Hong Kong, Fiji and Australia, and will conclude in April at the World Cup championship in Scotland.

This team will be playing "sevens," a seven-player-per-team offshoot of traditional 15-player rugby--the punishing, exhausting game from which American football evolved. But rugby is not football. Rugby players tackle each other while wearing no protective gear, don't huddle between every play, don't take time-outs and substitute only when someone is too hurt to continue.

Halftime lasts five minutes. And after the game, both teams traditionally meet at the nearest pub and swill beer until they're silly.

The Eagles likely will get pounded by their international competition. According to team officials, Americans face many obstacles in the world of rugby, including their comparative maturity and, of all things, American geography. Rugby is hardly new to the U.S. The sport was first played on American soil in the 1870s. And we're the defending Olympic gold medalists (the sport was dropped from the Games after our 1924 victory, because fans were too unruly).

But the nations that rule rugby--England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France, Australia and New Zealand--have the good fortune to be located near stiff competition.

The amateur U.S. Eagles (some countries have professional rugby leagues) come from far and wide, and rarely get to test themselves against their best countrymen. International play requires costly, time-consuming travel. Excelling at rugby requires more than just talent for Americans. "Even in Australia, 90 percent of the best players come from Sydney or Brisbane," says Eagles manager Emil Signes, from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. "We're just as likely to get a player from Boston as we are from San Diego." Age is another disadvantage for the Americans. Unlike players from other countries, who begin the game as children, our hardheads come to the pitch (rugby lingo for "field) comparatively late in life, usually defecting during their college years from football or other mainstream team sports. "By the time an American player matures in the game, he tends to be older," says Mike Dwyer, a local junior high gym teacher who has competed for the U.S. in international competition before. The average age of the players on Dwyer's all-star team was 33, he says, while their foreign opponents averaged a good decade younger. (American women have advanced more quickly than men: An American all-star team won the first rugby World Cup for women in Cardiff, Wales, in 1991.)

The game is much more complex than it appears to spectators, says Dwyer. "When you watch the game, you just see the physical part of it," he says. "You don't see the decision-making that goes on out there."

Further adjustments must be made by football converts. Tackling without equipment is a different skill than the kind taught by American Pop Warner coaches.

"You learn to play the game in a way that you're not going to get yourself completely knocked unconscious," Dwyer says. "As you get older, you learn to tackle without using your face so much. In football they teach to tackle with your face."
Players will be drilled on some of these skills at the Eagles' camp, which would kill most normal thirtysomething American males. The grueling itinerary starts with a reception for the all-stars Friday evening at the Holiday Inn at 915 East Apache in Tempe, to which all local rugby players (there are about a half-dozen local teams, of various ages and skill levels) and enthusiasts are invited. Play begins at 8:30 a.m. Saturday at Tempe High School, where team hopefuls will be tested for speed and endurance in the morning, then drill in the afternoon. On Sunday the players will scrimmage at Arizona State University's P.E. field, located on campus just south of the old men's gym. While the visiting all-stars rest their bones during a midday break on Sunday, local teams will scrimmage. The Eagles have held tryouts and training camps in town over the past several years, and continue to return because local rugby clubs, especially the Tempe Old Devils, provide hospitality galore. "Basically, we've developed a relationship with the boys in Phoenix," says Steve Finkel, the Eagles' field coach. "They enjoy doing it, and you enjoy going where you're appreciated."

Finkel says he has been evaluating American "sevens" talent since the last World Cup, four years ago, and already has a pretty good idea who will make this team.

"We basically know which guys we're looking at," he says, adding that most of the team's Tempe time will be spent filling out the few undecided roster spots and working on teamwork. To that end, Finkel has planned at least one unusual drill. At some point Saturday afternoon, the Eagles hopefuls will unlace their cleats and put on sneakers. Then, they will play basketball. "One of the big problems we have is communication, working as a small team, playing good defense," says Finkel, a resident of Columbus, Ohio. "Basketball has a lot of those same traits as rugby 'sevens' does."
It's not likely that Welsh or Scottish rugby stars spend much time shooting hoops, but the skills deficit between America and the game's elite requires drastic measures. "We're at the stage where we're capable on a good day of beating the world's best teams," says coach Finkel. "I think we're improving, but we're improving slower than the other countries. "We were chasing the rest of the world in soccer ten years ago. That's what we're doing now in rugby.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Dave Walker