Thursday, April 14, 2016

Op-ed: American Rugby Enters A New Era

By Derek Sagehorn

The promise of American rugby union has flustered its players, coaches and well-wishers for 30 years. Opportunity and disappointment have been the hallmarks of United States Rugby Union. Ever since that first Rugby World Cup—at the dawn of shamateurism—Americans have licked their chops at the prospect of competing with the best. The rapid spread of explicit, if not uniform, professionalism in the Southern Hemisphere and Europe exploded the competitive gap.

A select group of American clubs tried to adapt by embracing the long and expensive travel schedules of Super Rugby without significant sponsorship, increased training, pay or a broadcasting deal. The failed Rugby Super League was a prayer that a few wealthy benefactors would see a ready-made sports league and bankroll the endeavor. Players and club paid for and endured six hour flights to be on either side of a 60 point drubbing. Few more fans than the wives and girlfriends showed up to watch.

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Besides being a commercial failure, Rugby Super League did not produce necessarily better rugby players. Without an increase in training or access to strength and conditions specialists, the value of cross-country crème competition was marginal. The Eagles men’s team could not match the acceleration of Six Nations and Tri Nations countries. When the league folded during the Great Recession, there was no apparent way forward for American first division rugby. Amateur outfits made big league promises but they fizzled.

However bleak it looked, the fundamentals of American rugby were changing. Efforts begun in the late 1990s to “flip the pyramid” of participation from adults to youth began to bear fruit. The spread of youth and high school rugby in the 2000’s created a wider and more talented pool of adult players. Moreover, the rise of streaming video and social marketing lowered the barriers for newcomers trying to win the attention of American eyeballs.

Out of all this, Doug Schoninger and Stephen Lewis have put their hands up and made a go at professional rugby in the United States. The players and coaches are paid for their efforts. The matches will be played in small stadiums, not middle schools. Finally, fans from around the country and world will be able to share in the experience with them online. Whatever the result of Pro Rugby, Sunday, August, next year, in the next 50 years, the American rugby public is at crossroads. The dream of competing with England, Argentina and New Zealand must start here in Sacramento. Pro Rugby has set new standards for American rugby. There is no going back, we must go forward.

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