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America out to change perceptions of Rugby



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Mike Petri has a vision of rugby’s future in America – one in which fans embrace the game with the same fervor as other countries.

First, though, he realizes rugby’s bad-boy reputation needs an image overhaul. He and his U.S. teammates are working on it.

“Most Americans who think of rugby have the wrong idea of what rugby is. They think, ‘My college had a rugby team and they just threw great parties,”‘ said Petri, who starts at scrumhalf against the England Saxons on Sunday in the Churchill Cup.

“This is not how it is, especially in other parts of the world. This is a professional game. It’s a matter of the right exposure to the game.”

USA Rugby has 82,000 members. Chief executive Nigel Melville, who captained England in the 1980s, says the sport’s image is stunting its growth in this country.

“I think the biggest challenge known for rugby is to have people see the modern game,” Melville said. “This perception of sort of a badly behaved, singing, drinking sort of culture has changed so much in the last 20 years for rugby.”

Rugby’s showcase championship is the third-largest sports event in the world behind only the Summer Olympics and football’s World Cup. More than 2.25 million fans attended the 2007 Rugby World Cup and about 4.2 billion television viewers tuned in globally.

The modern game, which turned pro officially in 1995, is a more intense, physical clash, with players who are faster and stronger than their counterparts just a decade ago.

“Since it’s gone professional, rugby has become a much more fantastic, athletic game, totally different from years ago,” Melville said.

In 2003, the English Rugby Football Union, Rugby Canada and USA Rugby formed an alliance and introduced the Churchill Cup to attract fans and players from the U.S. and Canada. The tournament gives up-and-coming players a chance at international competition.

“It’s getting there,” said U.S. prop Will Johnson. “You sort of hear these stats bubble up: There are more American rugby players than there are in England, just because of our population size. …

But it’s tough. In America, you’re fighting to overcome some pretty big hurdles with baseball, basketball and football.” Churchill Cup tournament director and co-founder Terry Buewell says rugby is up to the task.

“We need to profile top quality international rugby so people could see its strengths, see a game of movement, a game of physicality and high energy, high skill, and that compares very similarly to many American sports,” Buewell said.

“American sports will recognize that the U.S. could be a major player on the world side. It has the athletes, it has the professionalism, it has the infrastructure, but it just needs the right people in the right place playing the sport.”

Petri is taking a two-month leave from his job in New York to play with the national team. He often invites friends to check out local games. He says they leave with a different perception.

“Anyone who’s seen a rugby game, they may not understand it, but they really enjoy the overall energy and excitement,” he said. “I think in America it just needs exposure.”

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