Rugby union takes foothold in US with rise of crossover competitors

By  Robert Kitson ,The Guardian,  25 March 2014

On the back of possible World Cup qualification and increased interest, American footballers and basketball players are realising there is a global sport that suits their skill set

Team-USA-RugbyThere are always those who would prefer rugby union to remain untouched by progress. Think of some of the things now taken for granted that felt bold at the time: the inaugural Rugby World Cup (1987), the five-point try (1992), the advent of professionalism (1995). When people blithely trot out the cliche that rugby will never take off in the US, they do so with the same confidence the Flat Earth Society used to exude in the good old days before satellite technology spoiled everything.

Look at the evidence and make up your own mind. The population of the US is more than 310 million. Olympic recognition for rugby sevens has freed up the sort of national funding that had been a distant dream. There are thousands of American footballers and basketball players who are not going to gain a professional NFL or NBA contracts but who are increasingly realising there is a global sport that potentially suits their skill set perfectly. Perhaps the most feared forward in the Premiership, Northampton’s Samu Manoa, is an American international. The All Blacks are set to play a Test in the States – the likely venue is Soldier Field, Chicago – on 1 November.

Stick it all together and you have a country that, one day, really could play ball with the best of them.

The $60m question, surely, is when rather than if. The 2016 Olympics in Rio will have the American women’s sevens team pushing for a medal. In last week’s Tokyo leg of the HSBC Sevens, the American men beat Samoa and drew with the eventual champions Fiji. There are 25 rugby players training full time at the US Olympic training centre in California; the vast majority are sevens players but not exclusively so.

Premiership clubs will also once again be flying out to monitor the national college sevens in Philadelphia at the end of May, an event screened by NBC Sports. A company called RugbyLaw is trying to establish a professional club tournament in the US and is holding trials in Minnesota early next month – presided over by the former Ireland coach Eddie O’Sullivan – for gridiron athletes keen to pursue a union career. They include a former wide receiver named Yamon Figurs, who apparently makes the American sevens blur, Carlin Isles, look pedestrian. The concept of “crossover” athletes is definitely on the rise. All it needs is for something – or someone – to stoke public interest on a wider scale. It could just happen this Saturday. If the USA Eagles defeat Uruguay in Atlanta, Georgia, they will qualify for next year’s Rugby World Cup in England – in the same group as South Africa, Scotland, Samoa and Asia 1 (probably Japan), and kick-start all kinds of fresh star-spangled possibilities.

The International Rugby Board believes American-based rugby supporters are already in the top three in terms of numbers when it comes to travelling abroad to watch Rugby World Cups. It does not require much imagination, should they make it to next year’s tournament, to foresee Eagles fans enjoying themselves in Brighton before and after their potential opening pool game against Samoa, or relishing a trip to the Olympic Stadium, where they would be facing South Africa.

Yes, the flat-earthers will say, but the Americans were stating this in the early 1990s and they are still nowhere near becoming a consistent international force. But steady on. In November, the Eagles defeated Georgia the week before their opponents beat the not inconsiderable might of Samoa. They should also have beaten an (admittedly weakened) Ireland last June and are already licking their lips at the prospect of Scotland’s visit to Houston on 7 June.

Admittedly, they only drew 27-27 with Uruguay in last week’s first-leg qualifier, almost falling foul of their hosts’ superior scrummaging muscle, but their European-based pros were still blinking away their jet lag. This week, with Northampton’s Manoa, Leicester’s Blaine Scully, Saracens’ Chris Wyles et al able to enjoy a full week of preparation, they will fully expect to make home advantage pay.

In the background, too, there is increasing private money being invested to try to strengthen the grassroots of American rugby, with some other interesting organisations doing their best to accelerate that process. Among them is Serevi Rugby, who count the former Rugby World Cup tournament manager Ross Young and the former England sevens international Ben Gollings as chief executive and lead coach respectively. Armed with corporate and private equity investment, Young and his group hope to fill the gaps that USA Rugby, presided over by the former England captain Nigel Melville, cannot always reach.

“Until I came across I didn’t realise rugby is as big as it is, especially around the smaller colleges in the US and in terms of the women’s game,” Young says. “Our role is to drive awareness further, get kids involved from as young an age as possible and help provide a pathway through to national representation.”

Representing the US at the Olympics is an obvious carrot but, stresses Young, there is also recognition that progress is not only about the top of the pyramid. “The long-term goal is to make rugby successful in the US. It took soccer a long while but they certainly have a strong foothold here now.”

The thousands of Samoan and Tongan ex-pats in the Bay area of San Francisco where Manoa grew up offer obvious raw material; there is also a growing belief the spatial awareness of basketball players could make them even better rugby assets than more programmed gridiron linebackers or tightends.

In the past few days, a New Zealand company, The Rugby Site, has sold its coaching modules to USA Rugby, which means any affiliated US coach can download tips from such names as Wayne Smith, Joe Schmidt and Richie McCaw to a mobile phone and instantly use them at training. The rugby world is changing fast.

So, no pressure on the Eagles to get the job done in Atlanta this Saturday. “Rugby World Cup qualification is massively important,” Young says. “NBC showed the 2011 tournament on terrestrial television for the first time and there’s talk about them doing more. They’ve put on Premiership games prior to Premier League football on a Saturday morning. Sport is hugely aspirational over here and success at national level is crucial.”

It might take another two decades for the American dream to be realised fully but to insist it will never happen in a million years is the kind of nihilistic thinking rugby union needs to eradicate.