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Monday Maul: Chicago special
Soldier On: What next for American rugby?
Tom Hamilton in Chicago
November 3, 2014
A sold-out Soldier Field in Chicago witnessed the Haka and a stellar performance from the All Blacks © Getty Images

On Saturday, Chicago hosted the biggest event in American rugby history as the US Eagles took on the All Blacks. The key is what happens next: how does the sport build on the spike in interest? What will it take to wake the sleeping giant? Tom Hamilton asked the question to powerbrokers, coaches and players…

It was a game that was a far-fetched pipe-dream two years ago, let alone when the United States of America Rugby Football Union was formed 39 years back.

Both IRB CEO Brett Gosper and former US captain Dan Lyle wanted to meet for the interview in the Hyatt Regency. Fate or mere chance meant the meetings took place in a hugely significant building for American rugby.

On June 7, 1975, 16 men - representing Pacific Coast, West, East and Midwest - met in the vast foyer of the building just off East Upper Whacker Drive and formed the USARFU, an organisation now known as USA Rugby. Thirty-nine years on, the hotel was the focal point for the build-up to Saturday's match at Soldier Field. Not only were the All Blacks staying there, but so too it seemed was most of New Zealand. You wonder if those 16 men ever envisaged in their wildest dreams such a melting pot of rugby enthusiasm coming together in the Windy City, let alone Saturday's remarkable occasion at Soldier Field.

It was the biggest match in rugby history on these shores, but it will mean little unless American rugby builds a new legacy off the back of it. At the moment USA rugby is akin to how soccer was during the 1970s in this part of the world. "It's up to USA rugby, sponsors and investors as to what happens next," Eagles skipper Todd Clever said post-match. "That's a huge wave, we're on prime time TV, selling out Soldier Field against the world champions. The question is, 'what are we going to do about it?'"

Three crucial steps

  • 1. A professional league is essential
  • A team featuring 11 amateurs is never going to be able to knock over a tier one side, let alone the All Blacks. The Eagles have some good players - Samu Manoa would be able to walk into virtually any international side in the world - but they need to build around them. Sorting out the complicated domestic situation would go some way to improving the transition from college rugby to club and would improve individual development.
  • 2. Rip up the calendar
  • USA Rugby needs to play more tier one opposition and the organisation should be applauded for having persuaded the All Blacks to stop by. Steve Hansen enjoyed the occasion but they won't be able to have the Kiwis in town every year. They need to work on the international windows with the IRB and on the other big nations to make this an annual occurrence and not a flash-in-the-pan event.
  • 3. Make the Olympics count
  • American rugby must capitalise on the Olympics. The USA loves the event and if rugby can appeal to the nation's imagination then it could see a rapid growth in numbers taking up the sport. Sevens is sometimes seen as a rival to XVs; the USA must establish a symbiotic relationship between the two.
  • Tom Hamilton, ESPNscrum Associate Editor

The queries over what happens next were being fielded both in the run-up to the match and in the wake of the 74-6 defeat. The good news is there are both the playing numbers and the youth interest in the sport. When Nigel Melville became USA Rugby's CEO seven years ago he found good numbers in the 18-21 age group, due to the college rugby scene, but the majority were those who had got bored of or not made it in American football. There was no grassroots scene and no pathway on offer for those once they hit 21 and left college.

'Rookie Rugby' was formed for 6-10 year-olds and there are now nearly two million children playing the game - 45% of the rugby players on these shores are under 18. "Rookie Rugby is for entry level," Melville told ESPN. "We took touch rugby and created this. We are trying to sell it to mums so it is non-contact with boys and girls playing together and they love it. We now have the foundation with 38 state-based organisations. I believe it takes 10 years to become a rugby player so we have grown that and once those numbers increase, the pathway will improve. It is sustainable on a longer-term."

The grassroots side of the game is looking promising but domestic club rugby is still far too convoluted. The Super League was founded in 1996 but was disbanded in 2012. The USA Rugby Elite Cup lasted one season and the country's domestic club scene is now split in two with the Pacific Rugby Premiership out west and the American Rugby Premiership in the east.

Both are amateur leagues but Melville hopes there will be professional rugby in the next two years to help persuade the country's best players to stay put rather than look overseas. "We can do it in two years, it will be city-driven and we will start with six [teams] and we will go from there."

For Phil Thiel, who started at hooker against the All Blacks and used to play for Saracens, he believes it may take longer than a couple of years but there is a will to realise Melville's dream.

"We need to get more guys into professional leagues, it is continuing to advance the US competition," Thiel told ESPN. "From an executive standpoint, that's USA Rugby's job and they do a good job in what they do. We need to get together more as the better the product on the field, the more dollars rugby will get. You see that in any sport, whether it's NFL or rugby in Europe, but if you get a better product that consistently plays in big environments then the crowd will become natural.

"Professional rugby is the dream. I don't see why, in 10 years, it can't happen. There's talk of more teams coming in and building a more consistent league and when you have higher-level games, that's when sponsorship comes in. When the floodgates open, they normally stay open."

Eagles coach Tolkin believes another failed professional venture for American rugby would be a "disaster" so there is likely to be a tendency to get it perfect instead of rushing the process. "I see the athletes are there, I don't see it being decades," Tolkin said. "Hopefully it will be much sooner."

Professional rugby [in America] is the dream. I don't see why, in 10 years, it can't happen US Eagles hooker Phil Thiel

But alongside the development of the domestic rugby scene, USA Rugby is keen to augment the global calendar so they have more time with their overseas-based players which would help create a professional league. Prior to their game against the All Blacks, the Eagles had just five training sessions. "As players, we need more time together," said Thiel, and Melville agrees it is an issue and wants a change to IRB's Regulation 9 and therefore the current system of international windows where there is one for the northern hemisphere and one for the south.

"We want a North American window which would have four games in November, none in February and five or six in the June window," Melville said. "We would play one big game every year. We could play New Zealand, South Africa or Australia on their way to Europe in November. In June we would play a Tier One side alongside the Pacific Nations Cup. We'd then play our pro competition in March, April and May. That's our season."

IRB CEO Gosper is aware of USA Rugby's hopes but says it is likely to fit in with a general restructuring of the global calendar. "They have indicated to us that would be helpful for them," Gosper told ESPN. "We'd also eventually like to find a calendar which would bring a better harmony for clubs and ourselves. You can look at Regulation 9 and the calendar but it might be better for the calendar to be looked at first."

That restriction is likely to be a battle fought over the next couple of years but American rugby will also see a spike in interest during the 2016 Rio Games - after all the USA are the reigning Olympic champions, even if that did occur in 1924. "We are seeing a growing increase in broadcast interest and the Olympics has created a big peak in interest," added Gosper.

New Zealand's Ryan Crotty, USA v All Blacks, Chicago, November 1, 2014
Ryan Crotty and the All Blacks left the US Eagles in their wake © Getty Images

Ex-Eagles captain Lyle agreed as much but thought more should have been made of rugby's return to the Olympics in America. "It was a seminal moment for the game. I remember watching the announcement on my laptop while I was away for a weekend with my college mates. Rugby, Olympics, America - it's the ultimate. But there was a makeshift press conference the next day in New York as opposed to a big announcement. There should have been an email sent to every college coach, every organisation in the country. Since then we've been playing catch up but if the Olympics goes off well then it will be huge."

Alongside the increased interest in Sevens is the growth in the women's game - there are more playing here than anywhere else in the world and there is potential for NCAA funding.

But the main focus in the wake of the game at Soldier Field on Saturday is the Eagles and how they can be taken to the next level. "The word is 'capitalise'," Thiel said. "USA Rugby has taken great strides in the last few years, we've been selling out 20,000-seat stadiums pretty consistently against teams who aren't massive draws in the States.

"We now need to capitalise, both as a team from a learning experience and by starting to win a few games against teams we are even with now to move up the rankings. USA Rugby also needs to move to 30,000-seaters on a consistent basis."

From a commercial point of view, the impact of the game is likely to be quantifiable in the next 12 months. Prior to the match, Lyle, whose business United World Sports are in charge of the Las Vegas Sevens, wanted to see three things occur in and around Soldier Field.

"I want this to happen for USA rugby. We are at a moment where we need to take advantage of this moment. Does the first page of the programme say to the supporters 'we need you to be on board regardless of what happens today'? The press need to know the opportunity with US rugby with a press pack or something similar. Every VIP who walks in, whether at a senior or junior level, needs to be handed a plan." The first two were absent and the third question is likely to be kept within the omerta of the corporate scene.

Perhaps there was an opportunity missed in this regard but Gosper is optimistic about the future of the game on these shores. "We think it's a bright future. The trajectory they are on suggests it has a bright future, it's the fastest growing team sport in America. There are increasing numbers of [American] players in Europe, there's a commercial and collegiate interest in this country.

"It [a match] doesn't last as long as other sports, which seems to be on trend. The physicality is liked here as is the team ethos and it comes through the colleges. It has a bit of romance about it. There is huge interest here but it hasn't been converted into the commercial [side]. They are sleeping giants in terms of results; they are punching below their weight."

Melville has grand plans with this in mind. He wants the British & Irish Lions to stop off in America en route to New Zealand in 2017 and they are considering a bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup. There is also the hope an Aviva Premiership game may be played stateside and he has set the Eagles the target of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2019 World Cup in Japan.

But back to the present. The Eagles remained in 18th place in the IRB rankings following their defeat to the No.1 side in the world. The All Blacks loved their time in Chicago; they embraced the opportunity to be tourists in a city where they were not stopped at every block for autographs.

The locals also seemed to get taken in by the sport. On Wednesday I asked my cab driver whether she had heard about rugby. "Rugby, that's that fancy game? I know it involves horses" was the answer. Come game day, the response from a self-confessed football aficionado who had grown to learn about the game during the week was, "rugby, now that's a real game".

They are sleeping giants in terms of results; they are punching below their weight IRB CEO Brett Gosper

The game is now in the public consciousness. The grassroots scene is hugely promising but it needs professional rugby to help take the sport to the next level. In a week where sponsors put on all manner of events, the players went to NBA games, All Blacks and Eagles shirts were sold in great number at the game and players from all around the country descended on Chicago, the potential eureka moment - for me - came in the press conference after the game.

After Steve Hansen had straight-batted my question regarding England, he saw a young boy had crept into the press conference and wanted to get a question out of the All Blacks coach. "Do you think this is the turning point for rugby in the USA, coach? Do you think it will take off?" Hansen hit the nail on the head with the response.

"Now that's probably the best question of the night," Hansen said. "I think rugby has already turned a corner. When we have a young man like you asking that question it tells me there a lot of people a lot younger than me and Kieran [Read, the All Blacks captain who was also in attendance at the press conference] who are keen on the game.

"From my information I've had since I've been here, there are a lot of young boys and girls playing the game before they get to High School. Once they come through into international rugby, you are going to have a group who have grown up with the game. I think we'll see not only the physicality and passion the Eagles had on Saturday night but also another level of skill as they would have played it all their lives. That's the key thing with rugby."

In the programme for Saturday's game at Soldier Field, Kevin Roberts, the honorary match chairman, attempted to quantify what the match meant for US rugby. "Today is an important step forward in 'inspiring American to fall in love with Rugby'. For rugby in the USA, this truly is 'The End of the Beginning'. Onwards." The next few years will be living proof of whether Saturday's game truly was a watershed moment for American rugby. If it was, the potential is immense.

Israel Dagg takes a photo of himself for a fan at Soldier Field © Getty Images
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Tom Hamilton is the Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.

Tom Hamilton was brought up near the stands of the Recreation Ground and joined ESPN in 2011. He is now Associate Editor of ESPNscrum.
Follow him on Twitter @tomESPNscrum