A Yankee's doing dandy on the rugby pitch for Bath

 

IT WAS the moment many an American schoolboy dreams of being offered a six figure contract by a leading American Football team. Dan Lyle turned his chance down less than a year ago, preferring to try his luck at a foreign sport, rugby.

American Football may have had its origins in rugby, but the two games are unrelated in the United States. Gridiron is high profile and cash rich, with its leading performers making Fabrizio Ravanelli a pauper in comparison; rugby union is a pastime with minimal coverage in the country's media.

Lyle (26), could have spent the past few months helping the Minnesota Vikings in their quest for the Super Bowl. Instead, he has been fighting his way into the Bath side and tomorrow will lead the United States against Wales at the National Stadium.

"I had to make the choice between the Vikings and Bath," said Lyle, a 1992 University All American tight end who had a trial with the Washington Redskins in 1993 at the time he played rugby for the first time.

"If I had signed for the Vikings, I would be making four or five times what I am now. But to me the choice was not so much about money but which sport I would rather play.

"Gridiron is huge in the United States but it has no world profile. Rugby is a global sport played in an international, rather than a national, context. I've played for Bath this season, the United States are currently touring Wales and last year we played in countries like Japan, Argentina and Canada. You get around whereas in American Football you just stay in one country."

Lyle has been playing rugby for less than four years. He was in Washington training with the Redskins when his cousin, who was playing for the Washington DC rugby club, invited him to try out the sport.

"I did not work out with the Redskins and I found I enjoyed playing rugby," said Lyle.

From Washington, he went to Aspen, Colorado, and then on to San Diego where he made his name with the city's OMBAC club. Bath saw him playing in Canada and made an approach, and the Vikings then made their move.

"I could have been playing in the current gridiron season, but I made the decision to stick with rugby," said Lyle. "It means a lot to me to captain my country, and playing for Bath has been a tremendous experience. It is a big club with a wealth of internationals. I have learned a lot."

Initially Lyle wondered if he had made the right decision. "I could not play until I had served the 180 day residential qualification period, and in my second game for the reserves I damaged knee ligaments and was out for a couple of months.

"There I was in a foreign country missing my favourite food and feeling sorry for myself, but when I got fit I fought my way into the Bath side and I have no regrets about the move I made. "I hope to take a Master's degree in the autumn and I am confident that rugby's profile in the United States will grow significantly.

"The game there is already developing a snowball effect. We are getting more media coverage and it is important that we make the 1999 World Cup finals."

It is no bad time to be playing Wales given their recent form, but in their two matches on tour so far, against Neath and Pontypridd, the United States have struggled and a victory for them tomorrow looks distinctly improbable, even against a Wales side short on confidence.

"What is most important to us is the manner of our performance," said Lyle, who has been playing in the second row for Bath but leads the Eagles from wing forward.

"If Wales play as poorly as they can do, who knows? We are here to learn and we have made huge strides in the last couple of years. Rugby is still an amateur sport in the United States and some players were unable to make this tour because of work commitments.

"Professionalism should work to our advantage, because if we can generate income through sponsorship we can attract athletes who at the moment would consider a career in football or basketball. As things stand, players who want to make a living from the game have to move abroad, but not everyone wants to give up their life at home. It is a matter of choice.

"If the game does take off in the United States, we will become a force. There's no doubt about that. When we get a victory against a leading country, which we will, that snowball will really start to roll."