By Ian Gilbert
It is a favourite sporting trivia question: Who are the reigning Olympic rugby champions? Full marks if you answered “USA” – and they will get the chance to retain their title at Rio 2016.
Rugby’s return to the Olympic programme – as Sevens – after a break of 92 years is a significant step for the Game in all its forms in the United States. This month a core group of Sevens players will take up professional training contracts, funded by USA Rugby and the United States Olympic Committee.
USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville explains: “In America if you want to take sport seriously when you come out of college, you take a professional path into the NBA (basketball) or NFL (American football) or you follow the Olympic pathway, which has enormous credibility – or you give up sport.
“Now we have an Olympic opportunity and close behind it I’d say it won’t be that long until we have semi-professional or professional contracts for 15-a-side.”
The Sevens players (15 men and eight women) will practise full-time at the Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista, California. While the shot at Olympic glory must wait until 2016, Melville feels a professional 15-a-side set-up could come as soon as 2013 or 2014, depending on sponsorship and likely audience.
With the Churchill Cup having run its course, wider exposure for rugby in the USA comes through events such as the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Salt Lake City in June and the American leg of the HSBC Sevens World Series in Las Vegas in February.
The efforts of USA Rugby are already translating into figures at grassroots level: the Union’s Rookie Rugby (non-contact) programme for six to 10-year-olds has 500,000 children enrolled and was the recipient of the IRB Development Award in 2011.
In the absence (for now) of a domestic professional tournament, the achievements of players such as USA captain Todd Clever – now with Suntory in Japan after a spell in Super Rugby with South Africa’s Lions – and Biarritz flyer Takudza Ngwenya give those 500,000 something to dream about, as does the Rugby World Cup.
The USA have played at all but one Rugby World Cup (1995) but never progressed to the knockout stages. If they are to throw off their plucky losers status, exposure to the professional game is all-important.
“We now have people playing in England, in the Top 14 in France, South Africa, and we can show people that in Sevens you can become an Olympian,” continued Melville.
Spreading the message
Despite the achievements of players such as Clever and Ngwenya, rugby will always have to work hard for recognition in a country where basketball and American football dominate.
Melville, who captained England on his debut aged just 23, embraces his role as a rugby missionary. “We all have a responsibility to push out the message about the Game and that’s really important. We are all ambassadors for our sport.”
And while the public awareness of the sport may lag behind other countries, the game in the USA does have other advantages with Melville admitting “in strength and conditioning and sports science we have incredible resources.”
USA Rugby has established clear pathways for players to progress from school, through college and on to higher honours, but Melville is pragmatic about the competition from different sports for the best athletes.
It can, he says, be a two-way street: “We do have players that have come to our high schools programme, developed skills and have ended up playing college football – we hope they’ll come back to us.”
Now that those talented youngsters have an Olympic target to aim for, rugby’s sleeping giant could be about to stir.
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