There are questions whether PRO Rugby is going to return for a second question or if not what type of league is going to take it's place but one thing that rang loud and clear from the Eagles winning the Americas Rugby Championship it is that professionalization has taken the Eagles to another step. If you look at the traditional areas in which the Eagles have struggled--fitness at the end of matches, decision making--there is no question that both of those are much better after a year of PRO Rugby.
Not every player on the Eagles played PRO Rugby last year but enough of them have to institute a culture of professionalism more easily at Eagles camps. Previously it was the few European players that would do that not having a player come into the team that hasn't played professional rugby is the exception rather than the norm. It's leading to better fitness and better decision making. Handling is better and so is dealing with pressure situations.
Other countries that have similarly had professional competitions have improved as well. The best example of this is Japan. They went from a team the U.S. beat regularly to beating South Africa in the World Cup. It wasn't an easy process and it took awhile but without question it was the Top League that made it happen. Georgia is a little different in that their home competition is not professional but more than enough Georgians play professionally in France and the UK that it essentially acts as their home professional league.
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With professional rugby up in the air in the United States and with countries like Canada, Germany, Spain, Russia, and the Pacific Islands lacking it all together it's going to be hard for these countries to either maintain their current level or move up. Look at what the decimation of club rugby in Canada has done to their rankings. So what can be done about it?
The easiest solution would be for every country to have their own professional competition. However, as PRO Rugby and all other ventures have shown that takes a lot (A LOT) of money. Most Tier II nations simply can't afford it. Instead, where most of these countries find the opportunity to get time to their top domestic players is in competitions like the Americas Rugby Championship, Pacific Nations Cup, the Asia Rugby Championship, and the Six Nations B. Every single one of these competitions provides high level matches that help improve the depth in squads ahead of the summer and autumn internationals. But at only five or six matches a year it's not nearly enough.
Maybe there is a solution out there that combines the effectiveness of regional competitions along with efforts of unions to professionalize. We'd like to suggest that there is. A World League that utilizes regional competitions but then expands them to fill in other parts of the calendar when there isn't as much rugby could be massive for Tier II countries.
Imagine this: the after each regional competition is played in the spring the top three teams from each move on to play cross competition in the fall against the top three teams from another region. For example, Argentina, the U.S., and Uruguay finished in the top three in the ARC this year. They would then move on to play the likes of Georgia, Romania, and one other team, like Germany, in three matches just prior to the November test window. There could also be another cross over against teams from another region in May prior to the June window. Players would be playing high-level matches year round rather than just in a couple of months in the spring.
In theory for some domestic American players that are involved in the June and November windows that could mean up to 17 matches a year. That is roughly equivalent to what they received in PRO Rugby. It would be stretched out over a year and they wouldn't necessarily be starting but they would be playing.
In the end it all comes down to money. There is no way that any of these unions could pay for these matches. Every single one of the Eagles matches is pretty much paid for by World Rugby. This is where both World Rugby needs to step in to allow the unions to finish the next step of the professionalization process. If World Rugby were to step up and pay for the travel of each team it would allow unions like USAR to focus on attracting a big sponsor or several sponsors to professionalize a core group of players.
Here is where we can look at PRO Rugby to estimate some costs. Taking the $40k a year salary for top players (again, not everyone will take that but it would be a good wage for younger players) and multiple that by a squad of 25 that's $1 million per year. Assume that you are spending as much on resources and costs equal to the salary of each player on each player than that's $2 million a year at a minimum. $2 million a year is still a hefty price tag that would bankrupt U.S.A. Rugby but it's also a number that if presented could be gained from a sponsor. There are also ways to trim costs (while still paying people!) in finding host families, maybe some outside work, or maybe dividing the team into top players making the full amount and developing players making half of that. The point is that at a couple million dollars finding a sponsor is possible.
Not every union would be able to professionalize, especially if they are a yo-yo team that might not be at the top of their regional competition every year. However, for the likes of the U.S., Canada, Georgia, the Pacific Islands, and others it makes it much more realistic. One of the problems has always been finding enough game time and this solves that if World Rugby can step up and pay for the travel. That would then give the unions an opportunity to do their best to fill in the blanks. It would also be in the interests of Tier I countries and competitions. If Super Rugby or the Pro12 wants to have franchises in Tier II countries why not help support them in the build-up with a core group of professional players playing high-level matches. It would help separate who is ready for the step up and who is not.
What is obvious is that the status quo for Tier II countries isn't sustainable. For every Japan that has been able to take the leap you have others like Samoa and Canada, teams that have beaten Tier I teams fairly regularly in the past but haven't done so in while. Tier I teams are rapidly accelerating above the rest not just because they have been traditional rugby powerhouses but because they have hundreds of players playing rugby full-time. Even having a total of 40 or so players if you count overseas professionals may not close the gap quickly but it would at least give countries like the U.S. a better chance. Plus, it would give fans another opportunity to make it out to a match.