Olympic Rugby Returns For Men; Women Make Their Debut : The Torch American men are the defending champion in rugby — a sport that's coming back after being dropped following the 1924 Games. The U.S. women are considered contenders in the fast seven-on-seven game.
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Olympic Rugby Returns For Men; Women Make Their Debut

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Olympic Rugby Returns For Men; Women Make Their Debut

Olympic Rugby Returns For Men; Women Make Their Debut

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And 92 years of missing out on the Olympics, and rugby players are back. The return of rugby in Rio marks the first Olympic appearance for women in that sport. It's also the debut of rugby sevens. It's a seven-on-seven game - half the number of traditional rugby - and sevens is fast. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I didn't grow up in New Zealand or Australia or England, so my rugby knowledge, like many Americans, is limited. I can conjure up images kind of like football, teams moving a watermelon-shaped ball toward a goal line, tough players tackling without pads or helmets, running with the ball and passing, although no forward passing. On a summer visit I made to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., U.S. women's team captain Kelly Griffin was patient. She knows my type.

KELLY GRIFFIN: Have you watched any rugby at all?

GOLDMAN: Not much, not much.

GRIFFIN: Well, it's a very - rugby sevens especially is, like, the perfect game for America because, one, it's fast-paced.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: My ball, my ball, my ball.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Go, go, go.

GOLDMAN: During this morning practice, offensive players sprint toward defenders. The ball carrier shovels an under-handed pass to a teammate or fakes the pass and tries to split the defense. Sevens is a lot faster because it's played on the same size field as traditional rugby but with half the players. The game's much more wide open. Not only is the action fast, the games are too - seven-minute halves in between a barely-long-enough-for-a-bathroom-break half-time. In total, a 16-minute game, which actually is plenty of time, says U.S. team member Jillion Potter.

JILLION POTTER: You know, you can be down with one minute to go and you need, you know, 14 points or something, and you could turn around and win the game, you know? So it's just that kind of high intensity, that kind of excitement that will draw people in.

GOLDMAN: So will the hitting. That's another reason Kelly Griffin says rugby sevens is the perfect game for America. This country loves a good smack to its sports, and rugby lets women fully in on the action. In post-Title IX America, female athletes get many opportunities but not often the chance to hit and be hit as part of a team game. I asked Richelle Stephens whether that was frustrating in her pre-rugby the life. She plays the fly-half position on the U.S. team.

All that time you were playing those other sports, did you feel an inner beast that you had to let out?

Now, before she answers, I'll note on this day Stephens was sporting a rainbow-colored shiner - courtesy of rugby - under her left eye.

RICHELLE STEPHENS: In softball, I used to do the collision at home plate (laughter).

GOLDMAN: Even if you didn't need to.

STEPHENS: Yeah (laughter). It was so silly, but I liked the, like, I don't know, just getting in someone's face.

GOLDMAN: Jillion Potter is in a class of her own when it comes to rugby toughness. She's a cancer survivor and is playing six years after breaking her neck in a match. She admits being timid when she first came back after the injury.

POTTER: And then kind of once you hit a couple pads, you hit a couple people, and then you're like, all right, let's play.

GOLDMAN: Physical, fast, lightning-quick games - there's a lot to draw people in, as Potter predicts. But a new wave of interest also depends on fans understanding the game.

ANDREW LOCKE: Don't worry about the pad. Just focus on the ball.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Left, left, left, left, left.

GOLDMAN: There are kickoffs. Assistant Coach Andrew Locke leads a kickoff drill at this practice. There are positions such as prop and hooker, a player who hooks the ball with their feet to an open teammate. That happens during a scrum, the classic rugby scene where a group from each team locks shoulders and arms in what looks like a big, interconnected huddle. A score is called a try - rugby's version of a touchdown - where the runner crosses the try line and touches down the ball. That's the briefest of primers, or there's rugby 101 from Jillion Potter.

POTTER: Tackle the person with the ball. Run when you have it (laughter). That's what - the first thing they teach you.

GOLDMAN: The U.S. women are considered medal contenders. The favorites include New Zealand, Australia, Canada. Competition begins the morning after the opening ceremony and wraps up a mere two days later - like everything else with rugby sevens, fast. Tom Goldman, NPR News

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