A fledgling rugby league hunts for athletes NFL might have overlooked

No doubt, rugby is on the rise. The seven-man version is now an Olympic sport, and a pro circuit is brewing here on the sunny side of the pond. A smash-mouth sport for a smashed and mouthy nation. Good fit, right?

Rugby, start your engines.


Let's see if I have this straight: The hooker gives the ball to the 8-man, who flips it to the scrum-half? Yep, you have the right country, all right. You want to recruit oversized speedsters for a felonious, hard-nosed sport, you could do a lot worse than reaching out to the United States, where some 100,000 athletes already play the game ... just not the very best ones.

Elite athletes with 4.3 speed and dazzling agility tend to invest themselves in other pursuits, such as football, our national narcotic.

So this week, a new pro rugby league has come to the Coliseum looking for a few choice leftovers the NFL might've overlooked. Mostly in their low 20s, invitees hail from Division I football powers and smaller schools you probably never heard of (Southwestern Assemblies of God University). The whole thing has a "Rocky" vibe. It is further proof that, of all the dreams, athletic dreams die the hardest.

But these aren't a bunch of delusional beer-leaguers. One specimen recorded a 40-inch vertical leap and bench-pressed 225 pounds 37 times.

"We've got some freak athletes here," said Jheranie Boyd, who played wide receiver for the University of North Carolina.

For instance: A former Florida State defensive back ran the 40 in a hiccup (4.28) on sweaty Coliseum grass. Michael Ray Garvin, who had NFL stints with the Cardinals and Lions, also did the 60-yard shuttle — an agility test — in a blazing 11.05 seconds.

As a point of reference, you take longer than that to get up off the couch.

No matter the talent, the learning curve will be epic. When organizers from the fledgling National Rugby Football League asked combine participants if anyone had even touched a rugby ball before, only a few hands shot up. No worries. Help wanted. Job training available.

"Not only do these athletes here have the hardware, they have the software," crowed league executive Michael Clements, referring to the Americans' physical and mental makeup.

Clements' first step is to form a 60-player camp from tryouts like this across the country, then pare that to a roster that will take on the Leicester Tigers, a European power, in a 15-per-side match on Aug. 1.

That could be our worst loss to the Brits since the Battle of Camden. Even if the athleticism is superior, rugby requires more nuance than can be soaked up in just a few months.

Yet Clements likes the us-against-the-world spirit of it, not to mention the notion that superior speed and strength can be a game-changer. After the Leicester showdown, he hopes to establish pro teams of talented newcomers in major U.S. markets in 2016, including L.A.

Lee Banks, a former Georgia Southern back with a drawl you could pour on pancakes, hopes to be a part of it. This day, he gets extra props for a vocal, Rudy-like enthusiasm, not to mention decent numbers in the combine drills.

Garvin, the former Seminole whose 40-yard dash was a whisper off NFL bests, said that after several rugby drills he liked the game. "I'm hoping to get better at it and hopefully dominate it and bring America to the top."

So does Herbert Law, a chiseled former Maryland defensive end who could hop the moon, or Wiley Brown, a fleet outside linebacker from Virginia Tech.

Or Wesly Peterson, whose football resume (Whittier) might not be as impressive as some, but lists four years of actual rugby experience.

"Everybody has to be a point guard," he explains of the game, where the ball is flipped backward, backward, backward … till the runner spots a seam, hits a wall of defenders, then flips it back again.

"Rugby is the ultimate team sport," Peterson says. "Very few rugby players are going to try going the length of the field."

Well, maybe till now.

I hope this voracious old game can gain a better foothold here. Ruggers go after the ball like it's a chunk of red meat, yet there is a team orientation and an almost appalling lack of chest-thumping bravado.

Is America ready for that?

Listen, where there is world-class athleticism, there is always hope. Tell you what, if rugby allowed the forward pass, it could one day have its own overhyped bowl game.

I'd watch, just for the spirited, irreverent songs that are part of rugby's lore.

(to the tune of "Battle Hymn of the Republic")

Jesus can't play rugby 'cause his dad would fix the game...

Jesus can't play rugby 'cause he's only got 12 men...

twitter: @erskinetimes