This promises to be a momentous year in the history of the United States. The country will elect its 45th president in November, NASA’s Juno spacecraft is on course to reach Jupiter and rugby might finally, finally crack into the world’s biggest market.
The United States has been described as a sleeping giant for so long that it might have slipped into a coma. There are signs, though, that life is stirring under the star-spangled-banner bedsheets.
Statistics released by the Sports Fitness Industry Association show that rugby is the country’s fastest-growing sport, with an estimated 1.2 million participants, and that growth is matched at elite level. Last weekend, the US, featuring Super Bowl winner Nate Ebner, beat Australia in the Hong Kong Sevens to consolidate their position as the top-ranked northern hemisphere side in the World Sevens Series, while, on Sunday, PRO Rugby, America’s first professional league, launches.
It will feature five teams based in Sacramento, San Diego, Denver, San Francisco and Ohio. Overseas signings include Dom Waldouck, a former Heineken Cup winner with Wasps, and Mils Muliaina, the former All Black full-back.
For Nigel Melville, the former England captain who has been chief executive of USA Rugby for 10 years, kick-off will represent fulfilment of a long-held ambition and he says that the league will look to emulate Major League Soccer’s success in translating a “foreign” sport to a home audience.
“The MLS has grown beyond all recognition into something that is pretty significant now,” Melville says. “At the start, it was pretty small scale, but they built it up. This is our opportunity.”
Even the advent of professionalism is secondary to the possibility of winning a medal at the Olympics in sevens. That is no pipe dream. Under Mike Friday, the former England coach, the US won last year’s London leg of the World Sevens Series. Melville estimates that they operate on five per cent of the budget of some of their rivals, yet, after seven rounds, they sit in fifth place, above England and France. Their ranks will be further bolstered by Chris Wyles, the Saracens wing who captained the US at the last World Cup, and Ebner, who was released by the New England Patriots to play in the Olympics.
“This is a team that is capable of winning the gold medal on its best day,” Friday says. “That is the same of at least eight teams, but we have gone from a team that is just making up the numbers to being a country that is feared and respected by the true rugby nations.”
“If they do wake this sleeping giant, then within 12-16 years the US could be a genuine contender for the 15-a-side World Cup. That shift could happen because the sheer size of athletic ability is staggering.”
That athletic ability is best encapsulated by Carlin Isles, a former sprinter, and Perry Baker, who came from American football and is now the leading try-scorer in the sevens series. Yet, it as not as simple as to suggest rugby can pick up every specimen who goes undrafted by the NFL. Baker is only now hitting his stride at 29 after six years of work behind closed doors. Crucially, Ebner’s first sport was rugby before switching to American football.
Athleticism without a semblance of rugby intelligence is a useless commodity, which is why the key battle is to get the sport into schools and colleges. That will, in turn, depend on growing and maintaining the sport’s profile, with Premiership rugby returning to the Red Bull Arena for the next two years having staged London Irish v Saracens there last month, while Chicago will host Ireland’s fixture against New Zealand in November. Yet the greatest opportunity would come with a place on the Rio podium, which Wyles, Melville and Friday describe as a “gamechanger”.
“You look at how the women’s team in soccer was adopted by the nation in 1999, that’s the opportunity we have,” Friday said. “The model market for rugby and the people who watch the Olympics are the middle-class mothers who are looking for the sporting opportunities. They will have exposure to the sevens game and hopefully to a number of role models in the sevens games who will make them think, I would like my son or daughter to do that. It could open the door, but it is a question of whether we are prepared to bash that door down.”
Land Rover is Official Vehicle Partner of Premiership Rugby and as part of its ‘We Deal In Real’ campaign is committed to championing the people, players and grassroots rugby clubs at the heart of the game.