Rugby's Olympic return in sight

Alex Magleby's attention is directed south and four years into the future.

The world is about to be captivated by the London Olympics, but the Dartmouth College rugby coach is already looking ahead, preparing for 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro. At that time, the sport of rugby will be reintroduced to the world (it was last an Olympic sport in 1924), and Magleby will be the man to lead the United States back.

The Americans technically are the defending gold medalists. Team USA claimed the prize out of a three-team field at the 1924 Games in Paris, pulling an upset for the ages over the host country. The U.S. also claimed gold in 1920. But much has changed since then. The Olympics will no longer feature rugby union, instead teams will play seven-a-side. But that's something Magleby believes can help spur the growth of the sport in the States.

"The game is growing so fast in the last 10 years in general," Magleby said. "It's grown globally largely, I think, because of the fact that it's inexpensive. All you need is a field and ball. Plus, now you're looking at only needing seven players a side instead of 15. Not only that, but it appeals to athletes from a wide range of backgrounds."

Magleby, 34, assumed the national team job on an interim basis following the resignation of Al Caravelli, a friend of Magleby's, in February. The Salt Lake City native juggled coaching both the Big Green and the national team in the following months.

The change didn't affect the Big Green, as they defeated Arizona, 25-7, to repeat as champions at the USA Sevens Collegiate Rugby Championship in June. Dartmouth has rolled to six straight Ivy League championships, part of a string of nine conference titles since 2001.

Since the collegiate season wrapped up in June, Magleby has made summertime recruiting trips and most recently managed the Atlantis Team at the Victoria (British Columbia) International 7s.

Running two teams concurrently can be a handful, but Magleby has shown he's game.

"You had to balance both," MagIeby said of his experience during the spring, "but I was pretty fortunate on both sides of it. I was really fortunate to have a team of great associates on both teams."

Plus, he knew his Big Green could take care of the rest.

"We had some really top-notch senior guys, they really stepped up and took charge when they had opportunities to lead," Magleby said. "You need a good core group with that experience, as in most team sports. But they were all great guys off the field, they were Phi Beta Kappas and leaders on and off the field. That is most gratifying part of the experience."

When Magleby speaks of rugby in national terms, he sees tremendous potential. In Magleby's view, rugby presents many upsides to American football. The sports are inextricably linked, as rugby was influential to football's development, and they're not all that different in sum. However, Magleby finds several reasons why football's predecessor has some alluring qualities.

"Think about football in terms of playing a game of flag football," he said. "All you need is a good quarterback and good receiver to make a team go. Everybody else on that field, you don't even really have to run to keep up with the action, and it's much the same way in soccer.

"In rugby, every player on the field holds the ball at some stage. It engages every player on the field. You have to make decisions with the ball, whether you pass it, run with it, and everybody has to move up and down the field with the game line. There's no hiding, everybody has to participate."

Like any other movement, Magleby emphasized the importance of building the sport at a grass-roots level. His philosophy stems from his high school days in Salt Lake, playing for Larry Gelwix's legendary Highland High School team. Magleby and his teammates would play football in the fall and basketball or hockey in the winter, but the main attraction came with rugby season.

After high school, Magleby came east to study engineering at Dartmouth and play rugby. He was shocked by how few of his teammates had previously played the game.

"I think most people's opinion of rugby at that time or before is that it was a frat sport, played with a keg on the sidelines," Magleby quipped.

Now high school programs number in the hundreds, which means the college game has improved and, one would think if Magleby's calculus is right, it will in turn help the sport at the national level.

The way he looks at it, there simply are too many athletes out there for it not to be a smashing success.

"I hope the public's perception would be that they expect us to win gold," Magleby said. "We should be a podium team. We're a country of 300 million-plus people and we produce athletes with a far-ranging base of skills. We just have to expose them to the sport."