PRO Rugby set for historic bow in United States
The game is set to take a monumental step in the United States this weekend with the start of the first fully professional league.
History will be made when Ohio tackle Denver and San Francisco take on Sacramento on Sunday with San Diego waiting in the wings and completing the five-team competition that will run for the next three and a half months.
Before a ball has even been kicked, the Professional Rugby Organization, or PRO Rugby North America as it will be known, has already made headlines with the recruitment of big names such as former All Blacks Mils Muliaina and Jamie Mackintosh, former Springboks international Pedrie Wannenburg and Premiership star Dominic Waldouck.
The first competition to be sanctioned by USA Rugby and World Rugby, its mission is to “grow the game and provide opportunities for players to train and compete in a full-time, high performance environment” but can it succeed?
Ahead of kick-off Graham Jenkins spoke to chief executive Doug Schoninger, who is funding the venture including the contracts of the 150 players signed up to the league, and director of rugby Steve Lewis, who has put together the coaching staff and playing roster.
Doug Schoninger: “We are book-ended nicely between the World Cup and the Olympics, although that wasn’t the driving decision."
“What really attracts me is that this is the last global sport not to go professional in the United States. It doesn’t mean it is going to work but there are not a whole lot of others to play with."
“A lot of the foundation work here in the US is finally coming to fruition, but a lot of work still needs to be done. Society has changed, the country’s changed, the game has changed, World Rugby has changed, they are slightly less protective than they have been."
“They are now encouraging and finally understand that in order for the game to grow you need to be a small game in a big market not just a big game in small markets. In order for rugby to be competitive worldwide you have got to have America.”
Why Ohio, Denver, San Francisco, Sacramento and San Diego?
Steve Lewis: “Venues were very problematic…and to a certain extent we are playing where we can this first year."
“We know 40% of the rugby players in the US are in north eastern corridor and the fact we don’t have a team there is not ideal."
“But we had to be realistic, find appropriate sized venues between 5,000 and 15,000. We’re not pretending we can fill the Red Bull Arena, we’ve got to be appropriate this first year.”
Why no marketing-friendly team names as US fans are used to?
DS: “I didn’t want to take the criticism from naming teams and more importantly we want to give ownership of that to the initial supporters, the foundation supporters of rugby. We’ll then pick one, build the logo around it and proper uniforms in the second year.”
“But the trick is if you want ownership it comes with responsibility, I’m giving you ownership but only as much as you take on responsibility. So when people ask me what can do I say go to games, buy a bit of the kit, if you don’t live anywhere near watch them on TV and watch them with people who don’t necessarily know rugby, spread the word – that’s what you can do, it doesn’t cost you anything.”
How have you pulled together the playing talent?
SL: “I’ve worked very closely with Alex Magelby who is the USA Rugby high performance director and we started with their depth chart. I coached Old Blue for a while so I know players on the east coast and I also coached in Colorado too and our first hire, San Francisco head coach Paul Keeler, is very embedded in the west coast.”
“I have some blind spots, for example I don’t know a lot about collegiate rugby, so basically it was a case of tapping into the top coaches’ knowledge. We started with about 220 names, got it down to about 150, we then offered 120 contracts.”
You have opted to include a number of high-profile foreign players?
DS: “The concept is that they are mentor players. The mandate of the league is to grow the American game, but that being said, sometimes you need to use the assets of people who are more developed than you. So that’s what we’re doing."
“It’s been hard and the visa process has been new to us and a little cumbersome. Next year we will probably go to five and next year those guys can help our guys really grow. I would hope the rest of the squads take advantage of that, grow into it, and that helps the national team and everything else.”
USA coach John Mitchell must be delighted?
SL: “It’s the biggest lift that any US coach has ever had. We are paying for 100 players to come into this environment – no US coach has ever had that. USA Rugby, Nigel Melville are very much invested in our success, they need us to work, they want us to work.”
Did you consider importing high profile coaches to help raise standards?
SL: “In my opinion it would have been a mistake to bring in a foreign coach, even a big name foreign coach, especially this first year. They had to coaches familiar with the American rugby landscape, in terms of expectations and how players think, so I wanted coaches already embedded here."
“For example, Matt Hawkins is an assistant coach at San Diego and used to coach USA 7s and Paul Barford is head coach in Ohio and has coached at age-grade for the last six years and knows every US player between 18 and 26. That is of great value to the league.”
What does success look like to you?
SL: “It has to be competitive, it has to be entertaining and a higher standard than has been previously played here and I think we can achieve that.”
DS: “Success to me is on two levels, there is the branding of rugby and then there are the bums on seats."
“Can we get rugby into the culture, the conversation; get a late night TV comedian joking about it. The whole sport hasn’t tried but the Olympics should make things easier."
“My job now is to expose 330 million people to this game, if they don’t like it then they don’t like it and I was wrong. But if I felt I couldn’t grow it outside the existing fan base then I wouldn’t even try because there is no opportunity.”