Pittsburgh sports fans have two new teams to cheer on in the Steel City’s pro sports pantheon: The Steeltoes Rugby teams.
Pittsburgh’s first professional rugby teams are a franchise of Premier Rugby Sevens, an organization whose goal is, in part, to create a touchpoint in North America for people unfamiliar with the game, according to Owen Scannell, founder and CEO of Premier Rugby Sevens (PR7s).
“Rugby as a sport is a very values-driven game,” Scannell says. “The common phrase that people have is that it’s a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, or as we like to say, gentlepeople, because we are a men’s and women’s sport.”
Maintaining equity in the game is a core tenant for PR7s, Scannell is quick to say.
In professional sports, women’s teams and leagues often appear subordinate to men’s teams, especially in more physical and rugged sports like rugby, says Josie Ziluca, head coach for the Steeltoes women’s team.
“I wouldn’t have said yes to this coaching opportunity if there was not equity, if there was not, per se, an equal playing field for men and women — and I see that there is,” Ziluca says. “There are plenty of organizations in the rugby forum that sometimes miss the mark… . Rugby is rugby.”
PR7s is a traveling circuit with multiple games played each day in a tournament format. A game clocks in at only 14 minutes. Rugby sevens is a variant of Rugby union in which teams are made up of seven players playing seven-minute halves, instead of the usual 15 players playing 40-minute halves. The men’s and women’s roster includes 16 players each.
The Eastern Conference kicked off at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas. Conference finals will be held at Highmark Stadium in Pittsburgh on July 23. The other Eastern Conference teams are the New York Locals, Southern Headliners and Texas Team.
Update: The men’s Pittsburgh Steeltoes of Premier Rugby Sevens dramatically won the Eastern Conference Finals. The Steeltoes defeated the Texas Team 33-5 in the semifinal. About three hours later in the final, the Steeltoes overcame a 19-point deficit to beat the Southern Headliners 21-19 after scoring 21 consecutive points. The women’s Steeltoes lost their semifinal to the New York Locals 22-14, followed by a 29-0 loss to the Texas Team in the 3rd place match.
The 2023 PR7s championship, with victors from both the Eastern and Western Conferences, will be at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 6.
The league was founded in 2020, but 2023 is the first year for the Steeltoes teams. Since last year, PR7s has doubled its number of franchises.
Scannell explains that the name “Steeltoes” came from a desire to embed the team within a rich Pittsburgh heritage. “Steeltoes” evokes the industrial identity of the city while connecting to the rugby cleat, known as a boot.
Ziluca and the women’s team have made connecting with each other and the city they represent a core part of the team’s identity. Researching the history of women in the steel industry helped them find that connection.
“I did a little digging, and I did a little rebranding for us as ‘Womxn of Steel,’” Ziluca says. “So, really looking back at the steel workers, the women steel workers from Pittsburgh and what they took on — going into new spaces and surprising people with a different side of what women can do.”
Ziluca invited Pittsburghers, and steel workers especially, to the Steeltoes signing ceremony so the teams can get to know the community they represent.
Bringing professional rugby to Pittsburgh was a no-brainer, as it is a hotbed for the sport in the U.S., according to Scannell. Pittsburgh has had numerous rugby clubs since the 1960s, the most active ones combining to become the Pittsburgh Forge Rugby Club in 2018.
“Part of it is that Highmark Stadium is a tremendous venue; we were really excited to bring rugby there,” Scannell says. “But also as a sports market, as a sports town, Pittsburghers love their teams, and we wanted to go to a place where we thought that we could bring this tremendous sport that we have in rugby to an audience that would appreciate it and enjoy it and find meaning and value in what we’ve created.”
Rugby sevens is a sport that any spectator who has watched two minutes of American football will be able to quickly understand and enjoy, according to Scannell.
“It’s the fast, fun, super exciting, tremendously engaging version of the sport played with only seven players per side,” Scannell says. “It’s easy to get swept up in the action, it’s easy to be excited by what’s happening. It’s the version of the game that I think is most conducive to an American audience in terms of getting them interested and excited about the sport.”
On the men’s Steeltoes team, only one player calls Pittsburgh home — Mikhail “Misha” Shorin. Shorin, whose first language is Kazakh, spoke to NEXTpittsburgh with his friend and translator.
Shorin started playing rugby in 2015 and played for a professional sevens team before being recruited to the Kazakhstan National Team.
While traveling with the national team, Shorin saw how rugby was played on “a different level” in the U.S. than in Kazakhstan. Shorin says he “didn’t expect the difficulty,” and that rugby in the U.S. is faster and harder because the sport is given more attention than in Kazakhstan.
Three years ago, he moved to Pittsburgh and began playing with the Pittsburgh Forge Rugby Club. Billy Gordon, Billy Marnell and the rest of the Forge team helped him then and now alike, he says.
Both the men and women Steeltoes lost their first games in the Austin kickoff tournament before taking wins in their second. Watching opponents, working with trainers and communicating with teammates helped the team win the second game, Shorin says.
Jason Kelley, head coach for the men’s team, echoed sentiments about team cohesion, saying it will only add to a spectator’s enjoyment of the game.
“We play a really exciting brand of rugby. We’re incredibly physical, but we’re incredibly team-oriented,” Kelley says. “We don’t really have individual superstars, but we have a team that really works well together and wants to work well for each other.”
Scannell says that now is the time for rugby to boom in popularity, as the men’s and women’s Rugby World Cup tournaments will take place in 2031 and 2033, respectively, and Rugby sevens will be an event in the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Ziluca similarly expects the sport to boom.
“Women’s rugby is how rugby’s going to grow in the states,” Ziluca says. “Men’s rugby, I absolutely love it, but it’s always going to be in that shadow of the NFL, and it’s a really tough space to work in. … I’ve said it to many people before, it’s my little manifestation, women’s rugby is going to overtake the NFL in 15 years. It’s primed for it.”
Pittsburghers can see the Steeltoes play on July 23 during the the Eastern Conference Finals. Tickets are available on PR7s website.
“Our performance in our first match was not exactly what we wanted it to be, but our performance in our second game certainly was,” Kelley says. “It bodes well for us going into our home tournament.”
Ziluca says the women’s team is similarly primed and hungry to take a spot in the finals. Still, winning is not their only goal.
“A lot of coaches, we have to put aside winning,” Ziluca says. “This is one of the questions I asked our Steeltoe women in Austin. I said, ‘What do you want at the end of this weekend aside from winning?’ Out of that tournament, they wanted to not feel deflated; they wanted to stay hungry and be excited for Pittsburgh.
“So for Pittsburgh’s tournament, I really hope that the city can get to know us and we can get to know Pittsburgh.”