Why The USA is Rugby Ready
I have been involved rugby in the US since my departure from Leicester Tigers in 2008 and to be a small part of the explosive growth of the game here is proving to be extremely rewarding.
While ‘giant awakens’ is a frequently used term to describe the potential of the sport in the US I feel it is very much awake and has been for some time. The success of the Sevens team in recent years, the addition of the USA to the international touring circuit and the creation of regular competitions against stronger nations is all helping to develop and inspire new players and coaches to come into the game and also generate an audience for the sport.
Is this just a phase? I don’t believe so. Here are the facts and stats that show why I believe rugby is here to stay in the USA.
Rugby is the fastest growing team sport in America
With registered player numbers in excess of 115,000, USA has the fourth highest number of rugby participants behind England, Australia and France. Women’s rugby in America has more players than any other country in the world. Colleges and high schools form the largest demographic in these figures and this is where the sport is at its strongest.
Colleges Breed Competition
Every week it seems more colleges are adding new teams, upgrading existing rugby programmes to varsity status (funded directly from the college) or taking on full time coaching staff. The sport is gaining credibility and reaching a much wider player pool. Athletes from a number of sports such as athletics, wrestling, or American football can all use their skills in XVs and its proving an attractive alternative for many of the top young athletes, both men and women.
College club competitions draw the crowds, the sponsors and the television coverage that will fuel the sports growth. While a senior professional league in the US remains an aspiration, the current generation of elite players are claiming their places in the top clubs of Europe. Former Northampton Saint, Samu Manoa will pull on the shirt of European Champions Toulon next season, Chris Wyles is at English Premiership Champions Saracens and Scott LaValla is part of the Top 14 winning side at Stade Francais. These aren’t players making up the numbers, these are quality athletes showing what Americans can bring to the game given the right opportunity to develop.
Defined Player Pathway
While this generation is enjoying club success, if the country is to go beyond the current RWC pool stages at international levels there needs to be depth and consistency to the squad.
That’s where Coach Alex Magleby comes in. His role as Director of Performance at USA Rugby gives him the responsibility of creating a framework that delivers the quality of players that international matches demand. His response has been to create a player pathway that allows for constant evaluation and progression of players through a consistent system to help players reach their potential.
I am responsible for delivering part of that pathway in my role as Head Coach of the Collegiate All Americans and it is great to see the interaction between the junior and senior squads and coaching teams as we work towards our shared goal.
However good the plan, it relies on a wide player base and players developing skills from an early age, which is where Rookie Rugby comes in.
USA is Building from the Ground Up
USA Rugby claim that over 5 million children have been introduced to rugby over the past 5 years through their Rookie Rugby (non-contact) initiative which has drawn praise and recognition from World Rugby for its work in growing the game. This early introduction to the sport is a vital step and coupled with the new opportunities to see the game played by the national team at the elite level will surely inspire this generation to pick up the ball and run.
If You Play, They Will Come
The USA team have played Italy, Scotland and Ireland on home soil since being added to the international tour calendar but none of these games could rival the match against the All Blacks last November at a 60,000+ sold-out Soldiers Field in Chicago. I mention the ticket sales not only because it was the biggest crowd for a game on US soil, but also because it drew such a large number of fans during American Football season. Proving that even football loving Chicago is not immune to becoming a new rugby hotspot.
Anticipation is building around the “America’s 6 Nations” tournament, due to kick off in 2016. Run by the Pan-American Rugby Organisation, the new annual tournament will mimic Europe’s 6 Nations tournament and be played at the same time. Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Uruguay and the United States will make up the competing teams with potential of expansion in the future.
Going Coast to Coast
While a country with the population the size of America offers potential in terms of player numbers, the scale of the geography remains a challenge to the viability and growth of a professional league. The growth of the sport has seen the few previously isolated “pockets” of rugby joined by new heartlands which have combined to form a network of “stepping stones” that extends from coast to coast. While this grassroots and college growth is impressive what the sport needs to reach the tipping point is to appear on a mainstream global stage.
Olympic Glory is the Key
In 2012 I witnessed first-hand how much Americans love the Olympics and what Olympic gold means to this society. Sevens Rugby has gained prominence due, in part, to the popular Las Vegas stop on the HSBC World Series and the inclusion of the 7s format in the 2016 Olympics will bring the sport to a new mainstream audience. USA won their first World 7s Series leg in London in May, 91 years to the day since they won the gold at the 1924 Olympics in XVs. Surely Rio 2016 must be fate?
World Rugby needs the Giant to Wake Up
Despite rugby in the Olympics and record viewing and attendance figures for the game, growth in player numbers in the traditional rugby markets has slowed in recent years. However this is not a trend in emerging nations like the US where participation continues to grow. These ‘Tier Two’ countries are being targeted by the sport’s governing body, World Rugby, as they are seen to offer huge potential to grow the game globally. An important milestone will come when the USA hosts the Men’s Sevens World Cup in 2018. All being well it’s expected that the USA will bid for a Rugby World Cup in 2023.
The powerful support of the governing body, hosting international competitions, regularly playing top quality opposition, creating a player pathway, building an audience, creating a network, developing elite players, making rugby a viable sport and career choice.
All this seemed impossible just a few years ago. So much has been achieved in such a small time but the momentum is undeniable and I can see this explosion of growth continuing for another five years and beyond.
This giant is awake and he is ready to play.