Rugby Legend Phaidra Knight on the World Cup, the Olympics, and the Growth of the Sport in America


Phaidra Knight wears many hats as a professional athlete, brand ambassador, sports agent, and motivational speaker - but one she doesn’t yet wear is that of an Olympian. She hopes to change that soon. Named USA Rugby’s Player of the Decade in 2010, the two-time All World honoree is currently training for the chance to compete in Rio next summer as part of the first-ever U.S. Olympic women’s rugby team. Up2Us Sports recently caught up with Phaidra to talk everything rugby, including her passion to make sure youth all over the world have a chance to play the game she loves.

Up2Us Sports: The Men’s Rugby World Cup started last week. Who do you think will win?

Phaidra Knight: Based on the impressive performances during the first round of pool play, it could honestly be anyone's game. Japan pulled off the biggest upset in rugby history, defeating the Springboks of South Africa. But based on their impressive record, attention to detail, discipline, and outstanding come from behind win versus Argentina, I believe that the New Zealand All Blacks will repeat.

Up2Us Sports: How is Team USA expected to do?

PK: According to some recent interviews with Team USA players and an article in the Wall Street Journal, the Eagles have their minds set on advancing to the quarterfinals. After a loss to Samoa in their first pool game, they will have their work really cut out for them to earn a spot in the quarters with matches remaining against South Africa, Japan, and Scotland.

Up2Us Sports: You’ve played in three World Cups yourself, and were twice named an All World Team Honoree. Can you talk a bit about what the World Cup experience is like?

PK: The World Cup experience is like nothing in the world. Rugby becomes our total focus, not only for the 2-3 weeks of playing in the World Cup, but also for the year leading up to it. The team gathers for one to two months leading up to the World Cup to train in residency in an effort to fine tune for the big dance. It's an incredible time for team bonding. Once we reach the World Cup, our primary tasks are to play, train, recover, review film, and discuss strategy. The twelve competing countries all reside on a common campus, which is pretty cool. There is opportunity to form new friendships while playing the best rugby in the world.

Up2Us Sports: What is your favorite World Cup memory?

PK: My favorite World Cup memory was the entire 2006 World Cup in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. We finished with a record of 4-1. It was representative of an outstanding performance by Team USA led by a pretty talented staff.

(c) Jen Doan

Up2Us Sports: For anyone who doesn’t know a lot about the sport, but are interested in watching the World Cup, can you share a few basic rules or must-know facts to the game?

PK: A few basic rules that anyone who doesn't know the sport should know is that in rugby, only lateral or backwards passes are permitted as opposed to the forward pass commonly used in American football. Rugby is also continuous, barring an infraction, so when someone is tackled, play does not stop. A ruck occurs, which is a contest for possession of the ball. When scoring a try (which is similar to a touchdown in American football), the player must ground the ball under control using their hands. In American football, there are unlimited substitutions, but in rugby there are limitations on the amount of players that can be substituted into a match. In rugby 15s, only seven substitutions are allowed, and in Sevens only five are allowed. Generally speaking, players cannot return to play once they have left the game unless within a certain time frame for a blood-related injury. In rugby, only a mouthguard is required to play, whereas, in American football, padding and a helmet are required.

Up2Us Sports: Earlier this summer, the U.S. Men and Women's Sevens teams qualified for the 2016 Rio Olympics - which has the sport back for the first time since 1924. It will be the first appearance of women’s rugby on the Olympic stage and you’re currently training to be on that team. Tell me a bit about the process, your training and what the outlook is for Team USA next summer.

PK: The pathway to becoming an Olympic player starts with an athlete playing exceptionally with their club/collegiate team to reach the representative level. Available to players more frequently now are development academies and camps where players can showcase their talents to national team selectors/influencers. Once a player is identified as having potential to play at the international level, they may receive an invite to attend a national team camp, which allows the player to train with current members of Team USA. Based on their performance, they may receive an invitation to train in residency at the Olympic Training Center (OTC), tour with Team USA or with the developmental team.

My training is a little different from the majority of the Olympic pool players presently. I spent the first six months of this year training in residency at the OTC and have since then, been training on my own, working with various rugby and athletic specialists. I am significantly older than the other players in the Olympic pool, so some elements of my training and recovery are little different.

The outlook for Team USA, both men and women, is very optimistic. The women recently experienced a coaching change, with former Eagle and Team USA coach, Julie McCoy, being brought back to lead the team to the 2016 Olympics. She has experienced a great deal of personal growth and coaching success since her last stint with the team.  She and her staff will be working closely with the USA men's coaching staff (arguably the best Sevens coaches in the world), Mike Friday and Chris Brown, to cultivate an Olympic medal contending team. The USA men jumped from 13th to 5th place in less than 12 months under the leadership of their coaching staff. They also had less than a 20% chance of qualifying for the Olympics. With growing support from USA Rugby and CEO, Nigel Melville, I look forward to great things from the USA in the next 12 months.

Up2Us Sports: The World Cup plays 15s - which is the traditional version of rugby - but the Olympics will have Sevens. Can you talk about the difference between the two?

PK: The biggest difference between the two is the additional eights players per side on the field in 15s, making for a much larger coverage area for the players in Sevens. Instead of a scrum of eight (in 15s), there is only a front row (two props and a hooker) in Sevens. The game of 15s is played for two 40-minute halves with a 10-minute halftime, whereas Sevens features seven-minute halves with a one-minute halftime (10-minute halves with two-minute halftimes for championship matches). More points are typically scored in Sevens games than in 15s.

Up2Us Sports: You have represented Team USA on both the Eagles and Sevens teams – do you have a personal preference between the two?

PK: In 15s, as a flanker, it was my job to follow the ball. That allowed me to roam freely about the field. I loved playing that role. I didn't necessarily have to be a cog in the wheel. I had a free pass to push the limits of the game, setting the tone in many instances. However, I really love the wide open nature of the Sevens game. Although there is a greater field territory to cover with just seven players, there is more space both before and after a line break, which is something I have grown to love. Candidly speaking, although the players in Sevens are typically the fastest players in rugby, I prefer tackling Sevens players at this stage of my career, because they are a bit smaller than traditional 15s players. The thing that challenges me the most in Sevens is what I love the most -- the discipline and work ethic required to work within a very structured format with the other six players on my team. It goes against my very nature as a flanker in 15s. 15s will always have a very special place in my heart, but at this stage, I really love Sevens.

Up2Us Sports: It’s being reported that rugby is the fastest growing sport in America. A recent study showed that participation in the sport increased by 81% from 2008-2013. Based on its recent growth, and it’s upcoming re-appearance in the Olympics - what do you see for the future of the sport worldwide and across the U.S.?

PK: I believe that rugby will see it's most dramatic growth spurt in popularity within the next 10-15 years in the U.S. Over the next two years, there will be the establishment of at least one men's professional league followed by a women's professional league. I believe this will formally commercialize the sport in America and create tremendous viability, profitability, and sustainability. The 2016 and 2020 Olympics will provide the platform for exposure, worldwide, to create exponential growth, making it one of the top five sports in the world. It will become the ambassador of many great things including discipline, respect, and camaraderie that all other sports strive to attain.

Up2Us Sports: You’ve been involved with Play Rugby USA - an Up2Us Sports member organization - for many years. Up2Us Sports is working to advance sports as a tool for addressing the critical issues facing today’s youth. What does developing youth through rugby mean to you? Why is it important for children, particularly in urban environments, to be involved in sports?

PK: Developing youth through rugby is an integral part of the foundation and future of rugby in America. I believe is goes without saying that it means a great deal to me. I believe that it's equally important for children in both urban and rural environments to be involved in sports. Having grown up in a very rural area in Georgia, I witnessed then and continue to see the need for young people to develop positive connections with themselves and others through sport. It also offers them the discipline, work ethic, and interpersonal skills that can transcend  and enhance other areas of their lives. Sport helps children confronted with aggressive emotions, such as anger, to channel them in positively, keeping them out of harm's way. The health benefits of being physically active through sport are numerous.