Here in the United States, we bow down and worship at the alter of football, a violent sport where 300+ pound human giants pummel each other in helmets and pads. Way down on our cultural list of sports priorities is rugby, American football’s not-so-distant cousin. It’s a savage yet gentlemanly game that satiates an audience’s appetite for ferocity and jaw-dropping athleticism, yet remains relatively uncelebrated in the American sports zeitgeist.
This summer, that’s going to change. For the first time in almost 100 years, rugby will be returning to the Summer Olympics. The Olympics in Brazil provides a massive international stage for the sport, catapulting it to television audiences beyond the countries where it’s already rabidly popular, like South Africa and New Zealand. For the first time in years, Americans have a chance to think of rugby as something more than a preppy college club sport that exists mostly for the parties.
In August, the Team USA national rugby team — the USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Sevens — will head to Rio to represent Uncle Sam in rugby’s return to the Summer Games. To hype the team and educate American audiences about why rugby is so great, I talked to two of the team’s biggest stars — Zack Test and Carlin Isles. Both have ties to the great American football system before giving up their pads — Test was a wide receiver for the University of Oregon football team alongside seven current NFL stars and is now considered one of the best rugby players in the world. Isles, considered to be “the fastest man in rugby,” played Division II football at Ashland University.
Both are beasts on the rugby pitch.
In their own words, allow Test and Isles to explain why rugby is the most savage sport on the planet and why we all need to rally around USA Rugby Men’s Eagles Sevens this August.
Can you guys explain your background before joining Team USA rugby? What was the draw to rugby for both of you?
Zack: I started out playing many different sports including swimming, tennis, basketball, baseball, football and track. I was competitive in those sports until high school and that was when I took football more seriously. I actually learned about rugby from my father, Eric, who played rugby in college and grew up watching it with him. I didn’t start playing rugby until my sister’s best friend’s older brothers, who played for a local rugby team, convinced me to join since it would help my football game. I actually went on to play football at the University of Oregon, which was an amazing experience. I started playing rugby my freshman year of high school and loved it. I first made Team USA in 2009 when I was 18. Rugby has such a great culture and community and it is global, which has allowed me to travel all over the world to places I never imagined being able to see. It is fast and exciting, the game never really stops and you can play multiple positions at once. It is a complete game.
Carlin: I grew up playing different sports and knew I wanted to use my gift of running as a career. I played football and ran track at Ashland University and was committed to continue playing sports even after college. I first discovered rugby from watching it online and instantly knew it was something I wanted to do and could excel at. Soon after I joined a club team in Aspen, Colorado that was when I really started to learn the sport mentally and physically. What drew me to rugby was the pace of the game, how wide the pitch is and how tenacious of a sport it is.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about rugby in the eyes of Americans?
Zack: The biggest misconception about rugby is that it is only for drinkers and partiers. That misconception started when rugby gained momentum in the 60s and 70s when the sport was more of fraternity rather than a professional sport. Now it is totally professional and not about partying, but representing yourself to the highest degree of athleticism.
Carlin: To me there are two big misconceptions. The first is that all we do is drink. At the club level they do drink, but professional rugby players really do not drink. We are professional athletes and are focused on excelling at our sport, not just partying. Also, a common misconception is that the sport is dangerous. Rugby is not as dangerous as people think it is.Million dollar question for us ignorant Americans — How are rugby players different from football players? Zack: Our training is different from football because we must have a very high level of both endurance and fitness. Our burst of energy has to last at least several minutes, while with football, the burst of energy lasts for a max of about 10 seconds. Training is completely different. Rugby players are very anaerobic (fitness based) and we need to do a lot more long endurance running because our fitness levels need to be very high. Rugby consists of playing hard for two minutes, then a quick break, and then going back to play for several more minutes. Football plays are much shorter. Our bodies are different too as rugby players need to be much leaner.Carlin: Aside from rugby players running to death, football players wear pads and we don’t. We are playing for longer bursts of time, and because of that we need to train differently, with a heavy focus on endurance.
Clearly many Americans aren’t familiar with the sport like they are with it’s cousin, football. In your own words, what do you think the casual sports fan needs to know before the Olympics this summer?
Zack: The casual sports fan needs to know it is a game that is fast-paced with lots of collision and the ball isn’t going to stop. Decision making is very much like basketball play, the running aspect is like football, the kicking aspect is like soccer. Rugby really is many different sports combined into one.
Carlin: It is an amazing sport, extremely fast-paced and a tenacious game. There is always something going on and it’s many different sports combined into one, like track, football and soccer. Even though it is a very physical game, it is also a very mental game.
Why was rugby banned from the Olympics in the first place?
Zack: Rugby was actually never banned from the Olympics. The last time rugby was in the Olympics was in 1924, when France, Romania and USA competed against each other, with the US team ultimately taking the win. Either way, I’m just really glad rugby is back!
Carlin: I don’t think rugby was banned from the Olympics, but I know it’s been a long time since rugby has been in the Games. Team USA Rugby won the last Olympic game 92 years ago. So glad rugby is back though, and that I can rep USA!
Can you tell us a little bit about what it took for rugby to get back in the Olympics?
Zack: It took rugby’s global professionalism. It is such an amazing sport, so professional and every country has a chance at being number one in the world. There are a whole bunch of nations in the world that you would never classify as an Olympic powerhouse, but do have strong rugby teams, that will have a chance to win for their country. It’s a huge deal.
Carlin: There has been a strong drive to get rugby back for some time now. Rugby has risen in popularity in recent years and people are starting to notice how exciting the sport is, and what it can bring to the world. As matter of fact, it’s the fastest growing team sport in America.
How has Team USA Rugby done in the past Rugby World Cups?
Zack: For 7’s, in previous World Cups, we’ve had good momentum. In 2015, we actually beat New Zealand, which was a huge deal and really exciting. Recently this year though, we did not make it out of the group stages because we lost in the second half of a game, and New Zealand went on to win. We could have been right there to be contenders but we let one game slip out of our hands.
Carlin: We have made and continue to make a ton of improvements on Team USA; the team is truly a sleeping giant.
You guys obviously know the international rugby circuit well. For us dumb NFL fan Americans, what countries are absolutely stacked? Which countries are the real dominate threats and why?
Zack: The four nations that are very much powerhouses: New Zealand, South Africa, Fiji and Australia. It is a game that kids are playing when they are very young and have the whole country behind them. Fiji is one of the few countries where rugby is the main, national sport. They have the whole island at their disposal when choosing athletes to join the team. They are phenomenal and strong athletes.
Carlin: Fiji is number one. They are big, they are strong, fast and their skillset is amazing. That is the team to beat in the international circuit. Also South Africa and New Zealand are powerhouses as well.
Are there any particular players internationally that are just filthy that people should keep an eye out for?
Zack: There are two players I can think of who dominate. Seabelo Senatla from South Africa. He was the top try scorer on the circuit this year. He is a very fast and powerful runner. Also Tim Mikkelson from New Zealand. He won Player of the Year this year. He is extremely talented and can change the game at an instance.
Carlin: My teammates. ALL of them. They work hard and are great at what they do. People definitely should look out for Team USA.
How do you guys train? Can you give a real breakdown of your routine?
Zack: I’ll start of my day getting to the training center at 7:30am, and have a mobility session from 7:45-8am, which opens up our joints and muscles to prepare our bodies for high intensity lifting. Then at 8am we’ll go through an hour of workouts with lots of weights, focusing on upper body and lower body. Guys are deadlifting 500lbs and lifting 225lbs on the bench. Then we’ll have breakfast. Then we’ll have two training sessions: defensive housekeeping where we are tackling each other for 20 minutes, then practice ruck defense for about an hour. These two training sessions are back to back and very intense with little time for recovery. Afternoon is an attacking session where guys are running anywhere from 5-6k meters in 45 minutes, playing their attack, etc. It is very competitive and explosive.
Carlin: I typically wake up at 5am and start training at 5:30am focusing on core and activation work. After that I’ll grab breakfast. Then from 8am-3:30pm I start training with Team USA. The first part of our workout is a gym session where we do deadlifts, bench presses, squats, hurdles, lunges, single arm dumbbells, rolls with dumbbells, core exercises and medicine ball throws. After that we’ll head to the field and focus on offence and defense, special teams, speed workouts. Recovery is important after those tough work outs, so I definitely love getting massages or taking an ice bath afterwards.
What does your diet look like? How many calories do you guys house each day?
Zack: My diet varies depending on the days I’m training vs. not training. When I am training, I usually have a smoothie with fruit, almond milk, greens mix and avocado before my four over easy eggs with sausage and hash browns for breakfast. For lunch I’ll have a chicken burger with avocado with a light salad and some sort of oats. Dinner is a chicken burrito accompanied by an Israeli salad, which is basically diced cucumber, tomato and avocado with oil and salt. I snack on and power up with almonds to keep my energy levels high while training. I also like spicy trail mix made with almonds. Not sure about my caloric intake, I don’t fuss much about that. On training days I for sure eat a lot because I need fuel for my body after putting such exertion on it.
Carlin: On a training day, I wake up early and need a good breakfast to keep me energized and focused. I’ll have a hard-boiled egg, steel-cut oatmeal topped with maple syrup and sliced almonds along with mixed fruit. For lunch, I have grilled chicken breast with mixed fruit, broccoli and a baby spinach salad with sliced almonds. Dinner is my favorite meal which is usually a big bowl of pasta with grilled chicken, mashed potatoes, asparagus and more mixed fruit. My schedule is jam packed so I always track to keep snacks with me. I like to keep a bag of almonds with me as an easy snack. They help me stay full and energized until my next meal. Trail mix is also one of my favorite snacks, especially a mix with sunflower seeds, raisins, dried cherries and almonds. I don’t usually track my calories, but I know it’s a lot.
I heard you guys have some gnarly cheat days….
Zack: I’ll start off with lots of pancakes in the morning, lots of bacon and eggs, for lunch I’ll have a beef brisket sandwich with cheddar macaroni and then either pizza or a burrito for dinner with Krispy Kreme donuts thrown in there.
Carlin: I love a big juicy burger. With everything on it. And fries. Lots of fries.
How do you guys get amped for matches? Are there any particular rituals the Team USA Rugby Team has? The All Blacks haka is one of the most savage traditions in sports…. What’s Uncle Sam’s equivalent going to be?
Zack: Each player has their own individual rituals that they do to get pumped up for games. We have a highlight motivational video from last year that shows the guys working hard and getting tortured during training and also highlights the circuits. We’ll watch the video (about eight minutes long) before going out to the pitch and it gives us pride before the game. It shows all the hard work we’ve done, how far we’ve come and motivates us to go out there and win.
Carlin: We each do our own thing to get ready for games. As a team though we watch our highlight video that shows us training and all the steps it took to lead us to where we are at physically. It’s motivating to watch right before games and gives us all pride.