Inside Sport - - ONE ON ONE WITH... -

Had rugby thrived in Cal­i­for­nia alone – with a pop­u­la­tion big­ger than Aus­tralia and New Zealand com­bined, and an econ­omy larger than France’s – it could have been the core of a last­ing Amer­i­can pres­ence in the 15-man (or maybe even the 13-man) game, much as that state has been the source for US teams in wa­ter polo, vol­ley­ball and a host of other sports. Robert Mes­sen­ger notes that in the short time the colleges played rugby, they formed the core of two teams that won Olympic golds in 1920 and '24.

How­ever, a cen­tury af­ter Stan­ford and Cal’s ex­per­i­ment, it can be ar­gued that the out­lines of rugby-play­ing Pa­cific rim are emerg­ing. Rugby is poised in Ja­pan, while the US and Canada have taken to sevens. The Amer­i­can sevens team (above) has won a leg of the global cir­cuit, in 2015, and the cross­over of for­mer foot­ball play­ers such as Perry Baker and Car­lin Isles hints at the tal­ent they can find.

It’s what makes the rugby counterfactual so com­pelling – in the same way Jar­ryd Hayne’s ad­ven­ture piqued our in­ter­est, to con­sider how their boys would go in our games is fun spec­u­la­tion. It’s easy to en­vi­sion Solomon Thomas in the mid­dle of the ruck, lay­ing big hits as a ma­raud­ing back rower. Watch Chris­tian McCaf­frey play (pic­tured right – he too will de­but in the NFL this sea­son), and you might be con­vinced this run­ner-re­ceiver-re­turner could im­me­di­ately slot in as a rugby full­back. Even John El­way could be reimag­ined as a play­mak­ing half, throw­ing passes back­wards rather than for­wards.

Foot­ball fans would surely like to be­lieve there’s a sin­gle source to oval-ball ge­nius. Ed McCaf­frey played with El­way in Den­ver (but not at Stan­ford; how­ever, El­way’s fa­ther Jack was McCaf­frey’s coach). “Phys­i­cally, he was very blessed – he could play two pro­fes­sional sports,” McCaf­frey noted of El­way, who was a top mi­nor league base­ball prospect for the New York Yan­kees. “He was also the most in­tense com­peti­tor. You com­bine the ath­letic abil­ity with his com­pet­i­tive­ness, and his in­nate lead­er­ship skills ... He was a guy’s guy, had a nat­u­ral abil­ity to make the guys around him play bet­ter.”

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