USA Rugby thriving under Melville
Brian Spegele
January 28, 2008

"Through his work to grow rugby in a country where baseball diamonds and American football's gridiron debauchery are kings, he concedes efforts are only just beginning." Brian Spegele reports for

Friends laughed at former England captain Nigel Melville last year when he announced he had accepted the position of CEO of USA Rugby. His task was all but impossible: transform the minnow rugby nation into a top-tier competitor. A year later, however, USA Rugby membership grows at an unprecedented rate, finances humming with the signing of several new corporate sponsors.

For Melville, 2008 will not be a time to relish in last year's progress. Through his work to grow rugby in a country where baseball diamonds and American football's gridiron debauchery are kings, he concedes efforts are only just beginning.

The results on the pitch are proof. Like in years past, the Eagles suffered defeats in a majority of Test matches in 2007, quietly exiting the World Cup, winless after pool play. But for USA Rugby officials, the outcome was anything but discouraging.

Brilliant play by newcomer Takudzwa Ngwenya and others earned the Eagles deserving applause from supporters everywhere they went. Ngwenya's now legendary try against the Springboks' superstar Bryan Habana earned him both recognition from the IRB and a professional contract with French-side Biarritz.

Melville argues that equally important for the growth of USA Rugby is not only the Eagles' current play, but also instating high-performance, developmental youth programs. It is an area that the USA's traditionally scant budget would not allow.
Despite increasing playing fees recently, USA Rugby's membership now soars at record levels with no signs of slowing down. Melville has called for the quadrupling of USA Rugby's budget from US$5 million to US$20 million annually. It's a lofty goal, of course, but as Melville said half-jokingly: "The easiest way to do it is to get a million members."

With heightened membership, several corporate sponsors have also sought to take advantage of the USA's growing stature. Among them, Sony recently signed a deal, allowing the company to advertise on the front of the Eagles' jerseys. This sponsorship, coupled with several others, has led USA Rugby's Chief Financial Officer Jen Cope to predict a significant jump in 2007's revenue totals.

Developing national youth sides have been among the most tangible results of new financial security for USA Rugby. The past few years have brought the birth of the boys' U-17 and U-18 sides and the men's U-20 side. These new Eagles teams intend to provide a gateway for younger players to advance through the levels, offering selected players consistency from a young age.
Already a widely used system throughout Europe and the southern hemisphere, these age-grade players will learn many of the same tactics used in upper level Eagles' teams. It is these consistencies that will allow the USA to one day compete internationally, said newly hired USA defensive specialist Peter Baggetta.

After a stint in Guam as an IRB game development officer, Baggetta returned to coach club rugby in Washington D.C. It was there Melville contacted the longtime coach to assist in developing new defensive strategies for all levels of Eagles' sides.
"It's exciting in the sense that this is all brand new," Baggetta said. "This is really uncharted water. But that is what makes this so exciting."

In his work with the national teams, Baggetta hopes to create "principles" for all sides to follow. These new pillars can serve as the foundation for the nation's highest level of play. Largely, Baggetta said he borrowed this concept from English Premiership side London Wasps, whom the 43-year-old spent a few weeks shadowing last year. Through these guiding principles comes an identity, Baggetta said, and in that identity, the ability to compete.

The defensive coach said he plans to work with soon-to-be selected men's national team head coach to develop this foundation.
"The systems will change depending on the players you have," he said. "The tactics will change on who you're playing, but these are the principles we will adhere to no matter what."

Speaking about the search for a new coach, Melville said he has narrowed the applicant pool to no more than five potential candidates.
With interviews ongoing, Melville said a new coach will be selected sometime in February and will have taken the reigns by March 1. Managers from all over the world have expressed interest in the job, Melville said, adding that he was "honored" with so many quality applicants. Melville's selection will replace departing manager Peter Thorburn.

The ability to create a new position for Baggetta, and working to attract a world-class Eagles manager is at least partially a result of doubling annual revenue during the past five years.

Since 2003, revenue from membership has spiked to more than $2 million annually, according to a financial report released by USA Rugby. This is a result of continued grassroots efforts by USA officials to bolster playing numbers - especially among the nation's youth. It is an uphill battle, of course, luring children away from America's more popular sports. These American children are the future, as far as USA Rugby officials are concerned. And by creating pathways for their success now, they hope to see the tides changing for the USA's global performance.

"Sometimes you look around and you ask 'what's the future?'" Melville said. "You look around at the youth."

"I've been absolutely amazed. There are passionate people here for rugby. There are passionate people for the game."

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