Sleeping giant: US rugby ready for its great awakening

As USA prepares to play Ireland this weekend, the US eyes up hosting World Cup 2027

USA’s Ryan Matyas celebrates with teammates after scoring a try against the Maori All Blacks in Chicago on November 3rd. Photograph: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

USA’s Ryan Matyas celebrates with teammates after scoring a try against the Maori All Blacks in Chicago on November 3rd. Photograph: Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

 

The USA, World Rugby’s giant bagel with cream cheese. Taking a bite has become CEO Brett Gosper’s favourite eating binge fantasy.

Munster recently announced they were having a slice after inking a playing deal with the New England Free Jacks, who are building towards Major League Rugby (MLR) in 2020.

IRFU performance director David Nucifora declared the agreement would be “mutually beneficial to both Irish and US rugby”.

Earlier this month the biggest market in the world was informed that the Toronto Arrows will join MLR for the upcoming 2019 season. Additionally, a team in Washington, DC has been accepted as a member for 2020.

January will be season two, with nine professional teams: Austin, Houston, Glendale (Colorado), New Orleans, Rugby United New York, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City (Utah) and Toronto.

All this after what league commissioner Dean Howes described as “a very successful 2018 ‘proof-of-concept’ exhibition season”.

“It’s getting bigger. It’s getting there. I was lucky to be involved when I was living in Atlanta,” says former Greystones, St Mary’s and now USA hooker Dylan Fawsitt.

“Talk about the sleeping giant. It really will awaken once we get these kids hit with the bug. We have a great team at the moment.

“But for homegrown, real talent coming through and getting that bug through the whole country it will probably take, let’s say, another World Cup cycle.”

Irish influence is considerable, with assistant coach Greg McWilliams and players John Quill, Fawsitt and Paul Mullen all having Irish roots.

Blackrock boarder

Fawsitt was a Blackrock College boarder and was coached by Peter Smyth at school and later in St Mary’s club, while McWilliams was a coach in St Michael’s school in Dublin.

“If you take a player we had last November, and that same player this November, their fitness will be stronger – they are in an environment where they’re working on position and basic skills more,” says McWilliams.

“Before, a player would train Tuesday and Thursday night at the club, play on Saturday and go to the gym on their own. These guys are now in a professional environment.

“For the growth of the game it’s important we develop academies in these pro teams. You can see already with New York, Houston and a few others that have. For the USA to become consistent it’s about getting a rugby ball into hands at six, seven, eight, nine years old.

USA assistant coach Greg McWilliams at squad training in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
USA assistant coach Greg McWilliams at squad training in Dublin on Tuesday. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

“It’s hard,” he adds. “America is sports-mad and they are very prescriptive sports. Football is very prescriptive from coach to player. Same for basketball and ice hockey, down to where you place your thumb. Rugby is a game where you need the player to think for himself.”

The MLR is an initiative of the American rugby community in partnership with private investors, all believing the sport in the US can thrive.

Getting a World Cup down the line is great if it means kids are going to be watching TV and loving the game every week

World Rugby are shamelessly giddy about wanting it to succeed. Determined to see the United States host the World Cup in the near future after a successful foray into San Francisco with Sevens rugby, Gosper called on USA Rugby to put forward a “magnificent bid”.

Positive

He was also positive about the MLR, believing it will help develop talent and keep it in the country, which will strengthen the national team.

The process to award the 2027 World Cup is due to begin within the next two years, with a decision expected around 2021. With Japan and France hosting the next two tournaments, the likelihood is that the hosts would be based outside Europe.

“Getting a World Cup down the line is great if it means kids are going to be watching TV and loving the game every week,” says McWilliams.

But he is realistic about what the US can achieve this weekend in terms of a result. What he does know is, whatever the outcome, the professional oversight now in place will use the match to bring improvement.

“We can’t be Ireland because of our demographic,” he says. “When you have a camp in Colorado guys fly four hours to be there.

“It’s the equivalent of Ireland having the coach in Poland, the S&C coach at the bottom of Italy, one player in Mayo, another in Turkey and a third up in Russia. That’s the size of America. It’s a unique challenge. But it’s a terrific challenge.

“The more we can play the likes of an Irish side who . . . you know, 10 times two-minute phases of attack, holding the ball regularly for eight, nine, 10 phases up to 40 phases . . . for our boys to defend against that. I mean, there are going to be cracks on Saturday.”

Cream cheese

It hasn’t all been full fat cream cheese. A lawsuit filed against the governing body and individuals associated with it by the founder of the now-defunct Pro Rugby, Doug Schoninger, as well as changes at the top of the board, disrupted the trajectory.

But then, as they say, it’s funny what a win does. A first victory against a tier one nation. A 30-29 victory over Scotland and one point changed their rugby world.

The USA now have lost just once in their last 10 matches, to the Maori All Blacks. Beat Samoa too, 30-29, another one-pointer.

“Our aspiration is to get into that top 10, to really become that force that we know we can be,” says Fawsitt.

“We watched the match in Bucharest. We were all cheering on the Irish. We want to play against the best in the world. It’s going to be a great indicator to see where we are.”

With World Rugby cheerleading, the US team have hit their highest-ever world ranking of 13. Gosper’s fantasy may not be so unreal.

Last 10 USA matches

Won 31 - 5 v Romania

Won 30 - 29 v Samoa

Lost 22 - 59 v Maori All Blacks

Won 42 - 17 v Canada

Won 30 - 29 v Scotland

Won 62 - 13 v Russia

Won 61 - 19 v Uruguay

Won 45 - 16 v Brazil

Won 45 - 13 v Chile

Won 29 - 10 v Canada

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