Tipping Point: Could the USA win the Rugby World Cup before Ireland do?
Rugby has always had core support in the US, what it lacked was the focus of a pro league
The USA side applaud the crowd following their defeat to England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Photograph: Craig Mercer/Inpho
A hundred years ago the USA were Olympic champions in rugby. Admittedly only two countries entered but the other one was France. Four years later the Americans again got the gold. Then 15-a-side rugby at the Olympics stopped. So technically the US is still Olympic champion at a sport perceived to be as American as bacon and cabbage.
There’s more. At least three former US presidents played rugby in their college days. JFK played for Harvard. Bill Clinton can recall scoring a ‘touchdown’ for Oxford. ‘Slick Willy’ was mostly there to fill space. However the former Yale full-back ‘Dubya’ Bush could properly play a bit. So there’s more Apple Pie to rugby in America than might be imagined.
All that’s worth pointing out because the US is rugby’s great untapped frontier. Apparently a hundred years ago it briefly rivalled American football for public affection. That kind of status belongs to history. But news that the former England captain Chris Robshaw will play in Major League Rugby next year is evidence of the game’s growing appeal across the pond.
It’s even got a claim on that always helpfully vague category of being the country’s fastest growing sport. The US women’s side is ranked higher than Ireland. The US men’s team beat Scotland in 2018. Rugby returned to the Olympics in Rio in the ‘sevens’ format and the American men’s side were medal contenders for Tokyo until it got cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Covid-19 emergency has also halted Major League Rugby for this year. That’s a reverse for an organisation only three-year- old and perhaps the best hope for the game’s progress in America. Signings such as Robshaw indicate ambition to replicate the success of Major League Soccer in percolating rugby into the consciousness of the American sporting public.
It will be a long process and sceptics will argue Robshaw is simply picking up a last lucrative contract, just as the MLS was viewed as a pension scheme for veteran footballers on their last legs. Over time that perception has changed, as has soccer’s overall public appeal in the US. It doesn’t threaten the big three sports for profile. But the scale of numbers in America mean it doesn’t have to.
Crucial to rugby’s future in the US is a domestic professional league. One businessman’s disastrous attempt to set one up in 2015 produced more court cases than teams. The strength of MLR is that it is rooted in individual ownership groups so it’s not all or nothing. It’s expansion in just three years has been notable. In 2021 it will have a 14 teams, one of them in Canada.
Doubters will scoff and dismiss it in faddish terms. It’s certainly true that MLR is starting from a narrow base. But rugby has always had core support in the States. What it lacked was the focus of a professional league. Establishing one and putting it on a sustainable footing is a mammoth task. Signings such as Robshaw and the former All Black Ma’a Nonu are a signal of intent.
Paying more attention than most will be World Rugby, the game’s governing body. It has always looked at America as a supreme opportunity for the game’s expansion. It’s why the US is in the running to host the 2031 World Cup. Expansion plans previously owed more to flowery statements of ambition than substantive action. Crucially the MLR promises slow but sustainable growth.
If it can get it right then the sky could be the limit in the long term.
It risks flirting with stereotypes but in simple terms Americans and rugby look a good fit. Rugby’s cocktail of aggression and athleticism underpins the gridiron game too. Rugby mightn’t be as static but neither is it such a leap for anyone brought up through playing American football as say soccer is. The skill set required for both are hardly poles apart.
Nate Ebner is proof of that. The New York Giants player, and three-time Super Bowl winner with the New England Patriots, was a hugely promising rugby player until opting to concentrate on football in college. The transition proved seamless then, just as it did in reverse when Ebner switched codes for a brief busman’s holiday playing for the US sevens side at the 2016 Olympics.
Ebner is rare in having played the game as a kid. Many American players come to rugby late, transferring the skills and athleticism learned in other sports to what is still a niche pursuit there. They can bring immense enthusiasm and athletic ability but haven’t the grounding in basic skills of the game that is taken for granted elsewhere.
The prospect of having a professional league to aim at is a crucial foundation stone in changing that. Without it there’s little hope of implementing the sort of culture change that can have significant numbers of kids playing the game. Manage that and the potential for the US to become a first world rugby power is manifest.
The progress of the Japanese national team is evidence of how far the momentum that comes with a little success can take a country that isn’t one of the traditional powers.
It isn’t that long since the bulk of the US ‘Eagles’ national side were amateurs. Irish rugby was transformed by professionalism and from a comparatively small playing base. Rugby in America wouldn’t have to come anywhere near baseball, basketball or football in terms of profile and still have a playing pick to dwarf Ireland’s.
As of now it’s all very much in the realm of potential. Average MLR attendances are at League of Ireland soccer levels. Momentum has been stalled by the Covid pandemic. So much depends on sponsorship and media platforms to increase coverage. But what is there is vast promise for the future.
In fact it might be the ultimate long term bet: the US to win any rugby World Cup before Ireland does