These were my thoughts a couple of years ago upon witnessing USA Sevens Rugby at Sam Boyd Stadium for the first time:
— Man, this game is fast and it’s wide open and it’s pretty cool, even if the ball is shaped liked Joel Goodsen’s mom’s artsy-fartsy glass egg in “Risky Business.”
— Rugby fans sure can drink a lot of beer.
— Where are the NFL scouts?
I since have learned there are nuances to playing rugby, and perhaps even a rule or two you’re not supposed to break — for instance, it’s probably a penalty if you gouge somebody’s eye during the part where everybody hunches over and rubs their heads together, and the artsy-fartsy egg-shaped ball comes spinning out of a tangle of knees and elbows. But they weren’t calling it on Saturday.
There also are a lot of huge Fijians in rugby, and they hit like tsunamis, without much notice. Only they hit with their hair ablaze.
In rugby, you actually can see the players’ hair catch on fire, because in rugby the players don’t wear helmets or shoulder pads or any other pads.
As indicated, I have seen the Fijians play, and they are a tad on the aggressive side. It would seem that if you put a helmet and shoulder pads on a Fijian rugby player and pointed to which one Peyton Manning was, Peyton Manning then would be in a certain amount of trouble.
And so now NFL scouts have, indeed, started coming around.
A few months back the Colts signed Daniel Adongo, a Kenyan who played rugby in South Africa, to their practice squad. By the end of the season, Adongo was covering kicks on the Indianapolis special teams.
“The guy couldn’t even put (football) pants on six months ago, knew nothing about football, and look at where he is now,” Colts defensive lineman Cory Redding told ESPN.com.
A couple of days after Christmas, the Detroit Lions signed 24-year-old American rugby player Carlin Isles to their practice squad.
Unlike Adongo, Isles does not possess muscles on top of muscles, though he did know how to put on football pants. He had played running back at Jackson High in Massillon, Ohio, and for a couple of years at Ashland University back home.
His first rugby team was the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Football Club, which is a bit of a misnomer.
Isles weighs only 165 pounds. But when they told him to run 40 yards at the Lions’ practice facility, and that they were going to time it, Isles did, and they timed it in 4.2 seconds.
And so they gave him jersey No. 16, and asked how would he like to be a wide receiver, or at least return some punts and kickoffs when the Lions convene for minicamp in April?
I’m told one also can cross over from football to rugby. Leonard Peters of America Samoa, who played safety at Hawaii and was signed to the Chicago Bears’ practice squad in 2007, was a Polynesian dancer whose specialty was twirling flaming knives.
In rugby, if you can twirl a flaming knife, they’ll teach you how to ruck and maul.
“People couldn’t believe I had been playing (rugby) for only a couple of months,” said Isles, who carried the artsy-fartsy egg-shaped ball 75 meters for a try in the U.S. team’s 19-12 loss to Argentina on Friday. “Some people thought I had been playing for years.”
After just 16 months of rucking and mauling, Isles found himself at the Lions’ training facility, thanks to rugby. He found himself hanging out with Calvin Johnson instead of crazy Fijians who try to knock your head off.
Matt Hawkins, the youthful coach of the American Sevens rugby team, said you’re probably going to see a lot more guys crossing over, especially if rugby succeeds in creating a professional environment during the next few years. There’s talk of an American pro rugby league forming that would play in NFL stadiums back east, and also receive financial backing from the NFL.
Whereas playing football is ingrained in American kids, Hawkins said in rugby you’re playing in the park with chums on a Saturday, and then two weeks later you’re playing against crazy Fijians in international competition in faraway lands.
“As we grow and this game becomes more professional, that’s going to open a lot of doors for football players to play rugby, and I think it’s also going to provide a scouting opportunity for football clubs and colleges to come and have a look” at rugby players, Hawkins said.
“But at the end of the day, sports like baseball, basketball and football pay a lot of money. And if anybody came to me today and said, ‘Hey, Matt, here’s a football contract for tens of millions of dollars, and your wife and kids are set up for life, and you can pretty much do what you want when you’re done’ ... well, I think how can you turn that down? So that’s not going away.”
Carlin Isles says making the Lions would be a dream come true. But if it turns out he’s too small to play on Sunday and on Monday night, then he wants to keep playing rugby, because he says rugby is a great game.
And if he does make it in the NFL?
Well, then he said he will miss rugby. But Carlin Isles said he won’t miss rucking and mauling with the Fijians, because the freakin’ Fijians are crazy.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.