USA has often been described as a sleeping giant in a rugby sense, one that could awaken if more of the vast population were attracted to the Game and the profile raised in a country where American Football, basketball, baseball and ice hockey dominate.
The sport has made great strides forward, helped by the USA Eagles picking up only their third ever RWC win against Russia last year and the inclusion of Rugby Sevens to the Olympic programme, opening up new resources and facilities for players.
Interest is growing too, as highlighted by the record crowds attending last weekend’s USA Sevens in Las Vegas, a total of 64,107 fans across the three match days and 30,112 on day two – the biggest ever rugby crowd to assemble in North America.
This June will see Salt Lake City host the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy, an opportunity to showcase the Game to a new and existing audience and one Nigel Melville, the USA Rugby CEO and President of Rugby Operations, is keen to capitalise on.
“It is very important to us to host the Trophy,” admitted Melville. “We are taking it to Salt Lake City, which is a hotbed of rugby for us. It is certainly growing in the schools, the high schools and also the college programmes are very strong around that area as well.
A big step forward
“It is great to take the Trophy there because people will come out and watch, there are some favourite teams arriving, not just the USA team but also teams like the Tongans are very popular in that part of the world.
“We are looking forward to having it on our soil, and I think to showcase international rugby to a market that doesn’t know that much about rugby is a great opportunity for us. To take them into Salt Lake City is good and also to have it broadcast around the States is a big step forward for us.”
USA have competed in the last three tournaments, their best finish being runners-up to Romania in Kenya in 2009, and the 2012 edition will also feature Canada, Chile, Georgia, Japan, Russia, Tonga and Zimbabwe.
They finished seventh in 2011, their only win coming against Zimbabwe on the final day, and the challenge will be no easier this time around in Salt Lake City, but Melville hopes in the years to come that may change as players benefit from starting to play earlier.
“The players have played in good high school programmes generally across the country, some will have played in our High School All-American programme and graduated to our Under 20s and that is really where they are coming from at the moment.
Planting seeds for the future
“It is interesting at the High School All-American camp over the Christmas period, I did a little survey on how long people had been playing and most of them have been playing for two or three years.
“The guys who were there from overseas, who had come in, who are Americans, had been playing since they were nine or 10 and have been playing twice as long. It is tough for us to get the hours into them of training and the experience into them but we just have to keep working them hard and making sure that they are well coached.”
There is no quick fix to this problem, but the foundations have been laid with USA Rugby’s hugely successful Rookie Rugby programme – the IRB Development Award 2011 recipient – having far surpassed its initial targets for introducing youngsters to the sport.
“The important thing really is to bring these Rookie Rugby kids through, but it is planting seeds, it is going to take years and years to get them through but at least we know they are on their way.
“You are looking over your shoulder waiting for them to come through, some will come through faster than others, but we do know that the seeds have been planted and the harvest is whenever it is, but it is some way down the track.”