The 2015 Rugby World Cup is fast approaching and one team to watch very closely will be the USA Eagles as they prepare to fight their way through a tough pool with South Africa, Scotland, Samoa, and Japan. Before moving on to a World Cup preview for this exciting and up-and-coming team, I feel the need to address recent developments in American rugby, to properly contextualize the stakes of this World Cup.
A lot has been happening in American rugby lately and expect a lot more to happen in the coming years. If you have not been paying attention to the landscape of Rugby Union in the United States lately, a quick recap to catch you up: According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, while baseball and American football participation rates have regularly decreased for several years, rugby is the fastest growing sport in the country, beating out lacrosse and hockey with growth rates of 81% for enrolled players between 2008 to 2013. While most colleges still classify rugby as a club sport, it is making a transition into an NCAA varsity sport, and growth continues to climb in campuses across the USA.
With extremely talented athletes like Carlin Isles, the United States Rugby 7’s team scored their first cup victory this year in London, surprising the world to beat out Fiji, South Africa, and New Zealand, finishing sixth place in the series standings overall, just behind England and Australia. Even though this was in 7’s and not the 15’s version of the game, the added experience and psychological advantage for certain key players who are also included in the 15’s team will be enormous. Rugby in the USA is certainly on the rise.
While these trends should be seen in a very positive light by American rugby fans in the development of the sport, there are some growing pains to work out as rugby becomes more and more popular. I feel the need to mention RugbyLaw, an American corporation whose goal is to establish a professional rugby league in the United States by April of 2017, titled the National Rugby Football League (NRFL). While I, as well as many other Americans, would love to see a professional league in this country, the NRFL’s preparation has not been stellar as they have not worked in tandem with the governing body of rugby in the United States, USA Rugby.
A game between the Leicester Tigers and a newly-assembled team of NRFL “professional” rugby players, nicknamed the “Rough Riders”, was slated to happen in August 2015, but without approval from USA Rugby, the match was scrapped at the last minute. RugbyLaw had also made plans for an exhibition match in New Orleans in early August between the Super Rugby Crusaders and the Aviva Premiership Saracens. Although approval would have come from World Rugby and not USA Rugby, in this case, the match was also abandoned. Although no specific reason was offered by RugbyLaw for canceling the game, it is quite possible that there was a connection with the Rough Riders – Tigers match cancelation.
Undaunted, the NRFL has continued to host combines, training and exhibition sessions for collegiate level rugby players and current or former professional athletes interested in joining the league when it is established. For rugby to truly grow in the U.S., I would hope that the NRFL and USA Rugby can work together in the future and pool their resources for the good of the sport.
Moving on to further recent developments, and in a more positive light, I think we are seeing some of the highest exposure that rugby has ever had in the United States, something that I believe the almost-here 2015 Rugby World Cup will build on. Starting back at the November 2014 test against the All Blacks, resulting in a humbling 6-74 defeat for the Eagles, the USA has secured test victories against Japan, Romania, and Canada, while losing to Samoa, Fiji, and Tonga. This appears on paper as a mixed record, especially with two defeats to Tonga at 12–40 and 19-33. However, close matches against Samoa and Fiji at 16–21 and 14-20, respectively, are positive takeaways for the Eagles, who could be seen as closing the gap between the Pacific Island nations, improving over long-time rivals Canada and Romania.
The best indicator of the quality of the Eagles’ recent performance in the build up for the World Cup would be their August test again the Harlequins, a professional English club based out of Twickenham where they narrowly lost 19-24. Many of the United States players are still amateurs, fourteen of the thirty-one players in the USA 2015 World Cup Squad play for non-professional, US-based clubs, making the extremely close call against the Harlequins’ professional players all the more impressive. Another positive result: The Harlequins confirmed a strategic partnership with USA Rugby to help develop the game at the grassroots level for both 7s and 15s, including working with affiliate clubs, Hawaii Harlequins, and Dallas Harlequins.
A final World Cup warm-up match for the U.S. will take place on September 6 in Chicago, where the All Blacks were hosted, against the Australian national rugby union team, the Wallabies. While perhaps not as well marketed of a match as was the game against the All Blacks, whose near flawless record makes for great promotional material, I think that the Australia game will enormously help the growth of U.S. rugby.
Grassroots growth in the United States is strong, among the strongest in the world, and if that momentum is paired with high-level, promoted international test matches with solid media interest and crowd attendance, I think that investors and companies with capital will come to see rugby in the United States as no longer an outsider sport, a fringe game played on college campuses, but in a very practical light, the next big, professional sports opportunity in America.
The USA Rugby World Cup team contains no true surprises or upsets, with thirteen overseas-based players adding European club experience to the Eagles, four USA 7’s players, and 13 amateurs rounding out the squad. There are no international debutantes, but 20 of the players have never played in a World Cup. A full list of players can be found at the bottom of this article.
As far as their tough pool fight goes, the Eagles are certainly an underdog going in, and many could guess that they would finish at the bottom of their pool, having to requalify for the next World Cup in 2019. Obviously, the Eagles will not beat South Africa, and less likely but equally improbable is a victory over Scotland. For South Africa, expect margins close to the scores from the Eagles’ games against Australia and New Zealand, slightly less for Scotland. Based on their recent performances, there is no reason to suggest that the United States cannot beat Japan, although it will be a close game. Additionally, while Samoa go in as favorites over the USA, if they play a smart game, the Eagles can certainly win against their Pacific Islander rivals. Two wins would be a huge victory for USA Rugby, earning them automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
The last point to make to wrap up this rugby recap is the NFL. While the rugger Jarryd Hayne was a rugby league player before making his NFL debut, he has been a popular talking point for American football as well as Rugby Union pundits, and opening up a discussion of how well rugby players’ skills would translate into the NFL. Jarryd Hayne’s agent has been confirmed as scouting out the RWC, looking for possible NFL talent and players to make a switch to American football.
While some rugby fans are wailing at this possibility, afraid of losing many good players to American football due to the higher salaries the NFL could offer, I do not believe this will generate a mass departure for rugby players, or “open the floodgates,” so to speak. What I do think will happen is that there may be some switching between the NFL and different professional rugby teams, but in the long run, that kind of exposure will help create a picture of rugby players as serious athletes in the United States. This in turn will help with investors who work closely with the NFL, taking offers and ideas to invest in rugby growth in the United States more seriously as well.
To summarise, a lot has been happening in American rugby lately, and they are a team to watch for certain in the Rugby World Cup, with dynamic players like Samu Manoa, Hayden Smith, and Chris Wyles. Even after the tournament is finished in England, be sure to watch the American rugby scene very closely in the next few years to come, as these recent developments and changes are quite possible just the start of something revolutionary happening in American sports.
USA Rugby World Cup squad: Danny Barrett, Chris Baumann, Cameron Dolan, Andrew Durutalo, Zach Fenoglio, Eric Fry, Seamus Kelly, Olive Kilifi, Niku Kruger, Titi Lamositele, Scott LaValla, AJ MacGinty, Samu Manoa, Al McFarland, Matekitonga Moeakiola, Takudzwa Ngwenya, Folau Niua, Thretton Palamo, Greg Peterson, Mike Petri, John Quill, Blaine Scully (Vice Captain), Hayden Smith, Louis Stanfill, Andrew Suniula, Shalom Suniula, Joseph Taufete’e, Zack Test, Phil Thiel, Brett Thompson, Chris Wyles.