Getting the USA playing
June 2, 2010
The USA's Zachary Test celebrates a try during victory over France at the Las Vegas Sevens in February © Getty Images
Calling to mind images of USA rugby usually leads to raised eyebrows at the scintillating pace of Biarritz's Takudzwa Ngwenya or perhaps a backwards glance to the stars and stripes draped across Sam Boyd Stadium as the Las Vegas Sevens kicked off in spectacular fashion this season.
The US are, slowly but surely, gaining ground on the world stage. They will play their sixth World Cup in 2011 and again host England Saxons, as well as France 'A', for this year's Churchill Cup later this month.
Below the surface though there is, to quote Play Rugby USA founder Mark Griffin, a "rugby underworld" springing up. Griffin, a nine-times-capped Eagle, has attempted to foster the game's core values with his organisation, which takes flag rugby to urban areas, often teaching the game in cafeterias, hallways and basketball gyms.
Griffin's mission began in 2003 with a coaching session involving 75 children from a Brooklyn homeless shelter, growing steadily to now incorporate 50 schools per season, affiliation with USA Rugby and a running tally of over 9000 students. The former hooker is now preparing for Saturday's Mayor's Cup Rugby Festival on Randall's Island, the culmination of the flag rugby season, which will involve over 50 teams from their New York "Give Rugby A Try" and Rugby Sevens program.
Despite the growing visibility of the USA on the international stage, Griffin believes that the key to a healthy future for the sport there lies with producing a significant number of players firstly at youth level and later through the schools system to collegiate competition.
"I genuinely think that the primary way to long-term success is to get hundreds of thousands of kids playing at an early age," he told ESPNscrum. "You can do everything else, pulling up from the top with TV and professionalism, professionalising the national team, whatever you want to do. That's great and they will improve the game, but unless you've got a really, really, big groundswell and push up from the bottom it's never going to make any material impact.
"There's a lot of good things going on in the game over here. The Sevens is a great example, the Churchill Cup and the fact that the boys have qualified for the World Cup is huge. It was very important that that happened, they performed well to get there."
One of the challenges for Griffin and Play Rugby USA is to ensure that there is a cohesive route for young players from elementary school through to high school, where the transition will be made from flag rugby to full contact Sevens and fifteens, something that he is also trying to promote by liaising with local clubs.
"We send coaches out to the schools, all over the city, coaching in gyms, basketball courts, cafeterias, yards, very few fields," he said. "We're in a school, but they're separate from elementary to middle to high school.
"If we're working in a middle school and our program is not in the high school we potentially lose that kid. What we've tried to do is start from the bottom and build-up. This year we've worked in about 70 schools, of which 60 have been elementary and middle schools. We've only just added that top high school piece, we started that with Sevens. Now we have a pathway all the way up through to college. We will then work with local rugby clubs to establish fifteens programs. The plan for next spring will be that we have around 20 high school sevens teams and in each borough we'll set up a fifteens team.
"There's approximately 700 high school-aged teams, most of them being clubs. Above that there's approximately 700 college or university teams. One of the great selling points of rugby is that we can offer a lot of our kids introductions to colleges, it's not a big scholarship sport like some American sports, but we can certainly help to put kids in contact with the right people at the right universities that have rugby programs. It's a great opportunity for us and our kids because we've already got kids playing at middle school and talking about going to Cal Berkeley or Penn State to play rugby. They're thinking about college at an earlier age."
An undoubted boost for American rugby will arrive with increased exposure following the introduction of Sevens as an Olympic sport from 2016. Griffin is quick to point out that the USA will feel the impact of Olympic inclusion more than any other nation, and will also no doubt remember that they are technically reigning champions after winning the title on its last staging in 1924.
"There's going to be some development money put into the game and out of all the countries impacted by the fact that rugby has been included in the Olympics, it has to be the biggest impact in America," he said. "There aren't many opportunities for people to represent their country in mainstream American sport. It's generally in the Olympics.
"You can do your extreme sports and winter sports in the Winter Olympics and you've got track and field sports in the Summer Olympics. There's no 'American' American Football team. The Olympics is huge for rugby because it will put it on the map. It's an exciting opportunity for kids to aspire to represent their country. It would be great to see some of those development dollars being funnelled into some of the city-based programs, because again the kids benefit from it. They're really in need of it. There's some great athletic talent and it's realistic to expect one or maybe a couple of kids on our program would have a real shot at competing for a spot in 2016."
To learn more about Play Rugby USA, you can visit their website or Facebook page. The organisation's next initiative is the Urban Rugby Cup, bringing together a number of urban rugby teams for a national event, which requires votes for funding here.
Huw Baines is the Assistant Editor of ESPNscrum.