The old English adage goes, “Football is a gentleman’s game played by thugs and rugby is a thug’s game played by gentlemen.” Which means that Nigel Melville is a gentleman who is working to spread a canon of brutishness across the United States. Sort of.
As the CEO and president for USA Rugby, Melville is truly a gentleman, clean-cut and well spoken as he sits in his tidy Boulder office overlooking the shopping centers and traffic of Arapahoe. Melville’s charge is to make rugby into a viable American sport—a game that can compete with the big five sports, that attracts sponsorships and eventually compensation for its players, that is played in schools and loved by all.
“Rugby in America is a lot like rugby in England in the 1980s,” Melville said.
Meaning, it’s on the cusp. But when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to include both rugby sevens, which is played with seven players on each side instead of the usual 15, and golf to its line up for the 2016 games in Rio, it may have given the sport some extra momentum in the US of A. While the decision means business as usual for countries in which rugby is a top sport, it could give American rugby the boost that it’s been looking for. Melville says the IOC vote—81 in favor and 8 opposed; golf had 63 in favor and 27 against—could mean more focus on the sport, more youth interest and more financial viability, including sponsorships and eventually a professional league.
But first, he has to take on football, basketball, golf and baseball to make rugby one of the top sports in America.
“That’s tough,” he said. “But there are enough people to go ’round.”
Career: Born in Leeds, England, Melville grew up playing football (ahem, soccer) and rugby. He opted to focus on rugby in his teens and found his way into a few leagues. Melville played on the national team and even co-captained it. One of his favorite memories is leading the national team out onto the field, a childhood fantasy come true. Injuries took him out of competition and he turned to coaching professionally. He joined USA Rugby in 2006.
On youth: USA Rugby has developed a less thug-ish game for the kiddos out there. “It’s like what flag football is to football,” he said. It’s now being played in schools in Florida.
On the Olympics: While the USA men’s rugby sevens team is ranked 11th by the International Rugby Board, Melville reminds the rugby-enthused nations that the United States is actually the rugby defending champ. The United States won the gold in men’s rugby in 1920 and 1924, which were the last years the sport was played at the Olympics. “We have that going for us,” he said.
On the sport: Meville says his favorite part of playing is “taking the ball and running.” “I never really liked the part about getting tackled,” he said with a laugh. As a half scrum, he was the rugby version of a running back.