History was made at the weekend with the opening round of the USA’s first ever professional rugby union league. PRO Rugby began with an 16-13 overtime win for Denver against Ohio, while Sacramento beat San Francisco 37-25 to be the first team to top the table. The final team in the tournament, San Diego will kick off their season at home to Sacramento on Saturday.
PRO Rugby has been realistic in its expectations for this season, hoping for average attendances of 3,000-4,000 with the largest stadium being Sacramento’s Bonney Field, which has a capacity of 11,442. They have also not gone the way of most American sports competitions, having all clubs owned by the league as opposed to being individually owned franchises. The schedule also sees most matches being played on a Sunday to avoid disruption for amateur grass-roots clubs. It would seem that the league is attempting to create a community, much like you find in British leagues, rather than trying to spread themselves too far. There are however already plans in place for the competition to expand next year to include Canadian teams.
The USA and Canadian national teams had relatively disappointing results at the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but the creation of this competition could be one of the big factors in the improvement of these countries going forward. The majority of the players in the PRO Rugby squads are current or prospective internationals for these two nations, but there are also some notable foreign nationals who have made the move to the US. RWC2011 winner Mils Muliaina has taken his experience to San Francisco, whilst Sacramento can look to former Italian international Mirco Bergamasco and Denver will be captained by 20-cap Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg. San Diego are also packed with top-level experience in the form of Tongan fly half Kurt Morath and former Biarritz back Jean-Baptiste Gobelet, as well as one of the more famous USA internationals of recent years Takudzwa Ngwenya.
The inclusion of well-known names like these can only help to attract fans to watch the games, in doing so increasing the number of rugby fans in the USA. PRO Rugby have also looked to Americanise the competition by adding overtime to try to limit the number of drawn games. They have also limited the number of scrum resets in order to appeal to new fans. Spectacles like March’s Premiership Rugby match between London Irish and Saracens in New Jersey will also only help to bring new fans to the sport, as they get to see top-level rugby from squads brimming with international talent. For a country with a population as big as the USA, a large fan base will only increase the number of people playing, which can only help a nation’s chances of improving long-term.
The good news is that USA Rugby look to have the right people in the right places at the moment. Gloucester fans will recognise the name at the helm of the organisation: former coach Nigel Melville has been CEO and President of Operations since October 2006. Having coached Gloucester for a number of years in the Premiership, he is aware of what it takes to be competitive at the top of the game. The head coaches of the senior men’s teams are also very experienced. Since January, the 15-a-side team have been coached by John Mitchell, a former forwards coach with both England and Ireland, who has also had a number of head coach jobs at Super Rugby clubs and also the New Zealand national side from 2001-2003. The 7s team has spent the last 2 seasons under the control of Mike Friday, whose record as a coach in the World Series speaks volumes: in the 2 seasons that he coached England from 2004-2006, they finished 3rd and 2nd; Kenya had one of their best seasons in 2012/13 , reaching 5th place in the standings whilst also winning the Wellington Sevens. Last season, Friday led the Eagles to their first ever tournament victory in the London Sevens, to finish 6th in the end of season standings, the first time they had finished in the top 10 since the 2009/10 season. This season, with 2 rounds left, the Eagles are yet to win a tournament, but are in a good position to beat last year’s record points total, and are currently sitting 5th in the table.
The success of the 7s team, especially with the sports inclusion in this year’s Rio Olympics, will again help to increase the number of fans, but is also allowing the players to compete more regularly against top quality players in the latter stages of big tournaments. As a result, a number of players use the 7s squad as a way to develop themselves further, with a number of the RWC2015 squad having featured in the 7s squad during their careers (such as Thretton Palamo, Blaine Scully and Chris Wyles) or being regulars in the current squads, such as current stars Danny Baker and Zack Test. Former USA 15s captain Todd Clever, who was dropped in the last months of the Mike Tolkin regime but has come back into the squad this season, also spent a number of years playing in the World Series before a move to the Japanese Top League. This is a great source of experience for players looking to break into the national 15s squad, especially for a country who will get a limited number of games against Tier 1 opposition.
A number of USA internationals have chosen to go abroad in search of top-level competition, so far with varying degrees of success. Thretton Palamo made a handful of appearances in the Premiership for Saracens before agreeing a loan move to London Welsh in the Championship this season, however he agreed a release from this contract in December to allow him to go back to the USA 7s squad. Danny Barrett and RWC2015 squadmate Seamus Kelly both had one month trials at Gloucester back in 2014, but neither managed to gain a full-time contract. Having only discovered this reading up for this post, and having been impressed by Kelly in the World Cup and Barrett in the 7s, I am shocked and gutted by this! Blaine Scully is currently playing in the Pro12 for Cardiff Blues after a couple of seasons with Leicester. RWC2015 captain Chris Wyles is a regular for Saracens, who also have lock Hayden Smith on their books. Flanker and 7s player Andrew Durutalo has also recently left the USA 7s team to join the Sunwolves, Japan’s new Super Rugby side. After an impressive World Cup, fly half AJ MacGinty was signed by Connacht for this season, and will next year be replacing Danny Cipriani in the 10 shirt for Sale. Though he may now be playing in PRO Rugby, Takudzwa Ngwenya was a regular for Biarritz, making over two hundred appearances and regularly coming towards the top of the European competition try scoring lists.
Rugby is frequently compared to American football. I’m not usually a fan of this comparison, but I will agree that it is possible for some players to have a physique and skill set that can allow success in both sports. In an earlier post, I wrote about Jarryd Hayne’s attempt to cross codes from rugby league to the NFL, but this is certainly not a one-way street. The sheer size of an American football roster means that many college players will not make the cut in the NFL, so some will look to a career change. The USA 7s squad has a number of sporting converts, many of whom are proving to be very successful in the World Series. Zack Test was a wide receiver when he was at college in Oregon, he is now the USA’s top try scorer in the World Series. Speedster Perry Baker was actually signed by the Philadelphia Eagles NFL team, but saw that career ruined by a knee injury. After 2 seasons in the Arena Football League, he took up rugby full-time and has become a regular in the 7s squad. Carlin Isles, widely regarded as the fastest man in rugby was an American football player at college and also a sprinter. His personal best over 100m was 10.24 seconds in 2012 and his opponents in the World Series would probably agree that he’s not much slower with a ball in hand. Possibly the most notable case of code switching in the USA 7s team is Nate Ebner. Ebner was the youngest player to make the USA 7s team and also featured in the USA U19 and U20 teams before deciding to play American football in his latter years at Ohio State. This led to him getting drafted by the New England Patriots in the 2012 NFL Draft, with whom he won the Super Bowl in 2015. Last month it was announced that the Patriots have granted Ebner a leave of absence in order to play for the USA 7s team again, with a view to making the squad for the Rio Olympics. He recently featured in the Singapore leg of the tour, where he scored two tries against Portugal. If these code-hoppers continue to have success in rugby, more players may be tempted to move to this emerging sport.
While the emergence of more international quality players and a professional league can only help the national team to improve, in order for them to reach their full potential, they need to playing top teams on a regular basis. The USA competed against Canada, Tonga, Samoa, Fiji and Japan in the Pacific Nations Cup between 2013 and 2015. Though they may no longer be involved in this competition, they now compete in the Americas Rugby Championship against Canada, Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Argentina XV (the Argentine equivalent of England Saxons). While this is great for the development of rugby in the Americas as a whole, I don’t believe that this will allow the USA national team to reach their full potential. Luckily they do appear to be getting more regular fixtures against top teams, having hosted the All Blacks in November 2014 and Australia in the build-up to the World Cup, and with a fixture planned for November against the Maori All Blacks. If they continue to play a couple of top teams per year, possibly also regular fixtures against teams like the Saxons, Maori All Blacks and Barbarians, then I feel it is just a matter of time before we see the USA rising up the world rankings.
This is a great time for fans of USA rugby, with the 15s team moving forward under a new coach and the 7s side being a dark horse for Olympic Gold, things are looking good for the national team. Success will lead to more coverage and popularity, and the emergence of PRO Rugby will be able to take advantage of this and help the development of possible future internationals. The 2019 World Cup in Japan may be a step too soon for them to challenge at the top, but will be a great chance for them to show how far they have come in a couple of years. But by 2023, we may have a new superpower in world rugby.
As a rugby fan, the thought of the USA reaching their full potential just fills me with excitement, and I can’t wait to see what happens moving forwards.