My rugby fandom was a product of circumstance more than anything else. Thanks to an expansive sports package on my parent's cable and mild insomnia, Canterbury vs Auckland at 12:30 AM on some derivative Fox Sports channel became appointment viewing. The Americans were never any good -- they've mostly gotten the crap kicked out of them -- but that's all started to change and the team was highly competitive this year in the build-up to the Olympics. I can tell you this as a football fan, Rugby 7s might be the most exciting sport played on grass.
What you need to know about the rules
If you don't know rugby at all, that's fine. You honestly don't need to know all the rules going into watching 7s to enjoy it. You'll probably pick it up pretty quickly and it's fun as hell even if you only half-get what's going on.
Rugby 7s is like football in that there's an oblong ball, an offense and a defense, endzones and uprights, touchdowns (a Try) and extra points and kick-offs. Really the same sort of format you're used to. The offense can only lateral it, so no forward passing -- the ball can't even be bobbled and dropped forward on a legal pass, that's called a "knock-on" -- but you can kick it forward and recover it.
The biggest change as a viewer is that every tackle becomes a fight for possession. The ball carrier must immediately let go of the ball and roll out of the way. A team tries to establish control by piling players in from directly behind the ball and a "ruck" or "maul" forms to push the team over to gain possession. If the offense wins, the defense must give a certain distance, a few meters* -- that you can think of like the line of scrimmage -- and can't close the distance until an offensive player pulls the ball out of the ruck. An offensive player can pass to a teammate while being tackled, before going to ground and avoiding that whole process, this is called "off-loading" and Fiji is especially good at it.
*A meter is 1.09 yards. It's pretty much the same thing.
Penalties or weirdness during a fight for possession results in a scrum think of it like a jump ball in basketball, otherwise defensive penalties are free kicks awarded to the offense and offensive penalties (mostly knock-ons and misbehavior after a tackle) are turnovers to the defense. Pretty much like soccer.
A player must "go to ground" in the endzone to score a Try. That's why you seem them either diving or touching the ball to the ground after they cross the goal line. The conversion (PAT) is kicked from a straight vertical line from where they go to ground, so you see players trying to get as close to the middle of the field as possible. Forced fumble turnovers in the endzone do occasionally happen.
Why you'll like it
Rugby 7s is a chaotic mess of legislated backyard football, and it's beautiful. Think of the end of the Duke-Miami game last year, but for the whole damn time. In an age where all of us are probably on the spectrum of an attention-limiting disorder exacerbated by social media that some psychologists of the future will undoubtedly define, this sport is literally flawless.
Games are about 20 minutes long, halftime included. The game is so fast-paced, human beings don't have the stamina to play it any longer than two, seven-minute halves with a five-minute halftime. They keep a running clock like soccer, and tournaments stack games back-to-back like how you binge shows on Netflix.
Good teams score a lot. A Try (TD) is worth five points and a "conversion" (PAT) is worth two. Game scores are commonly in the 20s and sometimes in the 50s.
Defense happens too. There are hard hits and tackling and goal line stands and forced fumbles. It's essentially watching a team try to defend Georgia Tech's triple option every play.
THE USA IS ACTUALLY PRETTY GOOD AT THIS AND COULD GET A MEDAL. They finished up the league season, 10 tournaments, in 6th place out of 19 teams, but were in the hunt for third before a couple of weak performances in Singapore and Paris to close out the year. And they've beaten both Fiji and New Zealand -- two of the favorites.
Perry Baker is a freakshow that dusts everyone for a house call nearly every time he touches the ball. Baker was a wide receiver at Fairmont State University (Division II) and spent two years with the Philadelphia Eagles before a knee injury sidelined him. He mostly hangs out on the outside, ready to hit the afterburners down the sideline. Teams are terrified every time he touches the ball, and rightly so.
These five minutes of Terry "Speed Stick" Baker are worth your time, I mostly laugh at how absurd it is. Everyone else is normal. When Baker gets the ball the Mario Gets a Star theme starts playing.
Baker isn't even the fastest guy on the team, that honor belongs to Carlin Isles -- "The fastest man in rugby". Yes, the US has two ridiculous speedsters. Here's an excellent read on Isles' backstory and build up to the Olympics. Baker was featured a little more than the Isles this year, but the US coach usually gives each guy a half (I don't know enough to say why he doesn't play both at the same time).
Here are some ridiculous Carlin Isles highlights. And even more here if you can't get enough.
US Team Olympic Schedule
Rugby 7s tournaments are laid out like the World Cup in soccer. There is a pool play round that leads into a seeded bracket. The USA roster is here. Game times are live start times and given in Pacific Standard Time.
Tuesday - Aug 9th - 9 AM - NBCSN: USA vs Argentina
Tuesday - Aug 9th - 2 PM - CNBC: USA vs Brazil
Wednesday - Aug 10th - 9:30 AM - USA Network: USA vs Fiji
Wednesday - Aug 10th - 1 PM to 2 PM - USA Network: Quarterfinals 1 & 2
Wednesday - Aug 10th - 2 PM to 3 PM - USA Network: Quarterfinals 3 & 4
Thursday - Aug 11th - 10:30 AM to 11:30 AM - NBCSN: Semifinals
Thursday - Aug 11th - 2 PM - NBCSN (delayed): 5th place match
Thursday - Aug 11th - 2:30 PM to 3:30 PM - NBCSN: Gold and Bronze medal matches
If you want to watch the team in action, the international 7s league has archived video of every game played this year here. Tune in next week and watch America dunk on people with insane speed. Argentina barely edged out the US for 5th place by two points (tournament winners get 22 points...2 points is the difference of one game), Fiji is the odds-on favorite and Brazil is mostly terrible.