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American rugby: Onwards and upwards

Working Class Rugger Roar Rookie

By Working Class Rugger, Working Class Rugger is a Roar Rookie

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    It’s been a revolutionary year for rugby in the United States, one that has seen the game leap forward into the future at a fantastic rate of knots.

    While rugby has been steadily growing and developing a niche in the American sporting landscape for more than a decade, the last 18 months in particular has seen rugby experience unprecedented progress on the national scene.

    NBC has become an integral partner in the promotion and growth of rugby as a viable commercial entity via its investment in the College Championship Invitational Sevens held in Columbus, Ohio, which, as of this season, will be re-located to Philadelphia and renamed the College Rugby Championship.

    NBC has followed the very pleasing ratings success of the CCI Sevens with their agreement with the IRB to broadcast every World Cup pool games via their dedicated sports channel NBC Universal, and the finals live and in full on NBC proper. Furthermore, they are also investing a significant amount of time and resources into the upcoming Las Vegas IRB Sevens event where, for the first-time, rugby will be shown live into American homes as a premier sporting event.

    These are incredibly exciting days for American rugby fans with the prospect of mass exposure creating a certain buzz unprecedented in rugby circles. However, perhaps even more significant, grassroots rugby in the States has seen enormous growth over the last six years, to the stage where the much lauded Collegiate Rugby structures have since been overtaken by a rapidly expanding high school scene.

    Add to this a genuine push build junior participation and to greatly improve the lives of many disadvantaged American youth through rugby, the game has been increasingly finding itself in a very welcoming environment. One such movement of note would be the recently launched TRY Rugby program. This organisation endeavours to support rugby programs such as the Warthog Rugby Club in Oakland, where the coaches use rugby as a means to enhance the lives of their chargers, who all, without fail, face challenges foreign to many.

    There’s an ever increasing quality of athlete emerging in American rugby via greater awareness. This seems set to continue with the establishment of the College Premier League. The whole concept grew legs early in 2010 and has snowballed into a movement that has drastically changed Collegiate Rugby in the United States. Previously Collegiate Rugby consisted as loosely strung together leagues. This movement has forcibly evolved Collegiate Rugby into defined conferences designed to replicate traditional sporting structures, something that many American rugby fans have been crying out to occur for years. As of 2012, there will be 16 geographical conferences alongside the CPL ushering in a new era for the College game. Encouragingly, ESPN has agreed to broadcast select games throughout the CPL season and the entire finals series culminated in the final to be held at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah. It all kicks off on March 5.

    Finally, it has been a tumultuous time for the Rugby Super League with the withdrawal of a number of the traditional powerhouses’ of the league. Ironically, these withdrawals have seen an incredibly competitive Southern California Division One emerge with the likes of Belmont Shore facing off against current champions Las Vegas.

    The RSL has recently taken the steps toward potential reinvigorating the somewhat tired championship with the inclusion of the Utah Warriors. Entrepreneur Sean Whalen leads the new ‘franchise’ with the intention of creating at least initially via the commercial side of the administration the first professional rugby union club in the USA. A somewhat odd choice considering the likes of the Glendale Raptors, who have a fantastic facility sponsored by the City of Glendale, have been lobbying for inclusion for a few seasons now.

    Utah appears to be the league test case for moving toward a far greater level of professionalism and will no doubt determine the future of the likes of Glendale and potentially Kansas City and Las Vegas. Both organisations, particularly Kansas City, with its recent move into the fold of the re-branded Sporting Kansas City MLS franchise and Las Vegas with their partnership with Clermont, are said to be watching Utah’s progress and success with an eye on the future. Moving toward more professional structures may not initially create a financially equitable league for players the importance of such movement are the first valuable steps toward building something of note.

    As you can see, rugby has seen nothing short of phenomenal explosion of growth and exposure in the last 12-18 months, and while the emergence of the great ‘sleeping giant’ of world rugby may still be many years off, all the right moves appear to be happening as demonstrated with the involvement of NBC and the increasing presence of Americans achieving professional status in Europe.

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    The Crowd Says (96)

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 2:28am
      Football United said | January 23rd 2011 @ 2:28am | ! Report

      i heard rugby get some sort of ncaa application rejected there (at least for the womans game). real shame because college sport there seems to be the way to grow things.

      • January 25th 2011 @ 7:32am
        Kevin Sullivan said | January 25th 2011 @ 7:32am | ! Report

        Actually, it was USA Rugby that turned down the NCAA, back in the 80s or 90s.

        • January 25th 2011 @ 7:09pm
          p.Tah said | January 25th 2011 @ 7:09pm | ! Report

          Kevin, why would they turn down the NCAA?

          • January 25th 2011 @ 10:55pm
            Nviktor said | January 25th 2011 @ 10:55pm | ! Report


            Rugby was trying to grow as a sport, not recede. The NCAA with it’s myriad complications and excessive pedantry would never have been a good fit for rugby.

            The CPL is in it’s premier season, but the model it puts forward is top-notch: the leagues – with the exception of the Mid-South and Notre Dame’s inclusion in that division – are geographically close for financially-challenged student organizations, well-coached teams of a high-level of quality will compete against each other for competitive inclusion in a well-defined playoff structure (no more will Army run the tables against cream-puffs without their natural depth early in the fall only to fall quickly to better prepared teams who are just peaking in late spring), and the season begins in March and ends in May preventing rugby from having to compete with football (Dec-Jan), basketball (March), or baseball (Summer) championships.

            The coaches of the teams in the league have been talking about how this league will succeed for a LONG time. I remember hearing coaches talk about this as early 1997. I listened to Alec Klinghofer (former USA Maccabiah prop and former Texas A&M coach) voice a vision of a league such as this in 1999. On more than one occasion, I’ve listened as current Texas A&M coach Craig Coates expound on that vision and share ideas that other high-level coaches had voiced. The College Premier League seems to be a fly-by-night affair from the outside looking in, but the planning for it has taken over a decade and the individuals driving the process just struck while the proverbial iron was hot!

            • January 26th 2011 @ 7:19pm
              p.Tah said | January 26th 2011 @ 7:19pm | ! Report

              Thanks Nviktor. I must admit I find US college rugby quite confusing. There appears to be so many different ideas as what’s the best way for the game to progress. I’m keen to see how the CPL progresses.

            • January 27th 2011 @ 2:58am
              Kevin Sullivan said | January 27th 2011 @ 2:58am | ! Report


              I respectfully disagree. Sports in America are developed through the scholastic system. High School Rugby, to College Rugby, to, eventually, Professional Rugby.

              Why not use what’s already working for Football, Basketball, Baseball, Soccer, LaCrosse, etc. etc.?


              • January 28th 2011 @ 6:35pm
                p.Tah said | January 28th 2011 @ 6:35pm | ! Report

                I completely agree with you Kevin about the development of US rugby thru the scholastic system, what I struggle to understand is the direction of the collegiate level. There seems to be so many conflicting ideas. It probably has more to do with my lack of understanding of the structures of college sport (despite living in the US for a while) DI, DII etc levels. I try to follow it on and but I guess I just have to do some more reading.

              • January 28th 2011 @ 9:41pm
                GavinH said | January 28th 2011 @ 9:41pm | ! Report

                p. Tah, below is my understanding of how it works (i’m also not from the US)

                In most US College sports a university will belong to a particular conference. Eg the SEC (Southeastern Conference) contains 12 big universities. These universities then play each other across several sports eg Am Football, Basketball, Baseball, Althletics, Soccer, Tennis, Volleyball etc

                This means that students, alumni, local residents near a university:
                1) recognise the SEC as a brand and are very familiar with the 12 constituent universities
                2) have traditional rivalries within the conference from many years of match ups
                3) ‘leverage’ rivalries from one sport to another eg if there is a big football rivalry then the basketball or volleyball match up between those two universities can be marketed as having a bit more ‘sting’

                Note that all the NCAA sports at a university are funded together by the university’s Athletics Department. This means that eg profit from football is used to pay for coaches and facilities for eg volleyball and athletics. Lets look at another example:
                SEC – Univ Alabama
                Stadium – 101,000
                Revenue – $102 mill
                Expenses – $31 mill
                Profit – $41 mill

                So Alabama made a $41 mill excess (2009) from its football team that can be used to fund other NCAA sports. As rugby is not NCAA at Alabama it does not receive any of the funding (i think).

                Rugby also has conferences but these are unique to rugby and are not related to the ‘traditional’ conferences like SEC, Pac 10 etc. Therefore for most casual sports fans the rugby conferences and the head to head games are very confusing.

                So why doesn’t rugby align its conferences with the ‘traditional’ ones i hear you ask?
                Well short answer is that it is starting to. Eg the SEC schools that play rugby have got together to form an SEC rugby conference. Some of the SEC schools might not play rugby (at least not seriously) but the idea is that once there is an SEC rugby conference it will be a big incentive for remaining SEC schools to start a serious rugby programme ie with pro coaches, scholarships for good players etc.
                There is already a new Ivy League conference with harvard, yale, dartmouth etc that aligns all the traditional rivalries is sport and otherwise of the ‘ivy league’ universities.

                BUT, before all these ‘traditional’ conferences do or do not happen the top rugby universities have decided they need a decent competition now. So they have created the CPL, which is a simple as taking the best [32] rugby colleges (and only the ones that WANT to be in an elite comp), splitting them into 4 geographic pools, and then having play offs at the end of the season to create a national champion. Note that:
                1) the CPL teams can still play one-off annual traditional match ups outside of the CPL tournament
                2) the old Div 1, Div 2 etc rugby conferences continue exactly as before but they don’t contain the CPL teams and div 1 is effectively the second tier competition (like having premiership and then championship in UK soccer and rugby)

                The good thing about the CPL is that the standard of competition in each of the 4 conferences should be higher than previous years and therefore attract more national attention eg from ESPN which is broadcasting some games.
                The negative of the CPL is it does not pick up the easy ‘low hanging fruit’ of piggybacking off the traditional rivalries and well understood (although often complicated) NCAA conference system.

                Simple huh?

              • January 30th 2011 @ 1:55pm
                p.Tah said | January 30th 2011 @ 1:55pm | ! Report

                GavinH, it’s not simple, but you’ve explained it simply… Thank you! It makes a lot more sense now

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 2:44am
      NF said | January 23rd 2011 @ 2:44am | ! Report

      Union will find it’s niche in the crowded American sporting landscape because it’s highly competitive and the array of talent available that do not make it to the NFL,NBA,etc can try union as a alternative sport so there talent ain’t wasted. There’s NFL,NBA,NHL,NBL, college sports equivalent, football,and many more sports to compete with good luck with union in the United States.

      • January 23rd 2011 @ 9:40am
        Working Class Rugger said | January 23rd 2011 @ 9:40am | ! Report

        There’s a push particularly amongst some High School coaches to build a case for Footballers to play Rugby in their off season as a form of spring training. You’d actually be surprised how many current College and NFL player’s have actually played the game.

        Furthermore, just prior to the new year Arizona States Football coaches greenlighted both his scholarship and varsity Football players to be able to compete in the new CPL. Two of his offensive Linemen will be running out with the schools Rugby team this year. If they make a successful transition more are expected to follow this move. Add to this a swathe of ex-NFL crossover athletes emerging in the National 7s setup (leonard Peters, Tommy Saunders, Myles Craigwell) and Rugby is being seen as an alternative.

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 6:36am
      Untimelyzapped said | January 23rd 2011 @ 6:36am | ! Report

      WCRugger – let’s have your prospective Eagles squad for the RWC. Who’s in, who’s out. And who are the new faces liable to get some attention from the world?

      They have a nightmare pool – Wallabies, Ireland, Italy. Will they beat Russia? What do you think?

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 9:59am
      sheek said | January 23rd 2011 @ 9:59am | ! Report


      One disturbing thing I’ve noted is the ongoing problems with the Rugby Super League (RSL), with several clubs self-demoting themselves largely as a result of the global financial crisis.

      There are presently only 11 RSL teams compared with a peak, I think, of 18 about 5 years ago. While the game is obviously developing at the below national comp level, the tribulations of the RSL are nevertheless disturbing.

      • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:10am
        Jaredsbro said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:10am | ! Report

        Hey Sheek shouldn’t you be in church right about now 😉 Agree about the top-level thing and for couple of years I’ve made it my mission on this site and elsewhere to get informed about US Rugby…and part of this was realising the potential (but not yet really) of the collegiate level. It worked for some in the soccer demographics…Rugby could work too…even if the Pro level (like with everything in the US) comes after the collegiate level

        • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:47am
          sheek said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:47am | ! Report


          After 6 years of boarding school, & attending mass every Sunday I was in-house, & 4 days out of 7 in the early years, & once during the week in later years, I figure I have enough mass “credits” for the remainder of my life!

          • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:52am
            Jaredsbro said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:52am | ! Report

            Your perception on these things as always fascinates me…(I forgot my usu wink mark…so here you go 😉 )but on the financial viability of a non-professional, but continental comp, the RSL may have some serious problems and therefore the need of serious solutions if it is to remain the premier Rugby Union tournament in the US. But the trick is to be heading towards professionalising…not a very easy thing to do in a country where Rugby’s niche really is as an amateur ‘yuppie’ sport

        • January 23rd 2011 @ 3:56pm
          Who Needs Melon said | January 23rd 2011 @ 3:56pm | ! Report

          This is church isn’t it?

          • January 23rd 2011 @ 8:00pm
            Jaredsbro said | January 23rd 2011 @ 8:00pm | ! Report

            Y’know that was quite possibly what I was getting at all along 😀 Well we do talk about Cathedrals of Our Great Games…the analogy seems to work for the spruikers, why not for the true fans

      • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:47am
        Working Class Rugger said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:47am | ! Report


        It cost each and every team $100,000 USD on average to compete in the RSL. So for individual clubs its expensive. I’m pretty sure at its high there were 16 teams. They relegated a couple due to lack of competitiveness and four have self relegated mainly due to financial restrictions directly resulting from the impact of the GFC on the US. The likes of Santan Monica and Belmont Shore are committed to return once they overcome there funding short fall while to be honest both Charlotte and Boston Wolfhounds would be better served staying in there respective D1 leagues to build up the necessary player bases to remain competitive in the RSL.

        The thing is the RSL could have a 12 team RSL tomorrow if they wanted to. Alongside Utah the Raptors boast an impressive program with their own facilities including Stadia, gym, corporate, training fields etc. Plus an ever improving depth. From their first season where they started with just 7 which grew to 30 to 2010 where they had a 1st, 2nds, 3rds, U19s, High School and juniors from U8s -U14s. Add to this their Try League which has been running for the last couple of seasons with great success.They are backed by the City of Glendale and would be a worthy entrant in the RSL if allowed to compete. At the moment politics (particularly that of cross town rivals the Denver Baabaas whi are threatened by their emergence if rumours are to be believed) keeps them in D1. There day will come.

        Furthermore, the likes of Kansas City are interested in the development as while officially they only have the use of Sporting KC’s facilities word is they are looking to enter a bid for inclusion with the MLS franchises backing. Yuo also have Las Vegas who have their ambitions particularly now as they have an open dialogue with Clermont. Finally and this is vey left field the Atlanta Renegades are also building in the South.

        While the GFC has seen somewhat of a rationalising of the League there are contenders out there. The RSL appears to be testing the waters for a overhaul of its once club based championship to a city or select franchise system. At the very least they could be building the case for another level above the current RSL.

        • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:56am
          sheek said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:56am | ! Report

          Thanks for that Rugger,

          I’m sure the RSL will expand again. What they’re doing at present is smart contraction in the short-term. Moving to city based names & franchises would also be smart.F
          Old Mission Beach Athletic Club, Old Puget Sound Rugby club, Life University, Belmont Shores, San francisco Golden Gate, Gentlemen of Aspen, etc, all have exotic names but some of them are a mouthful.

          Having San Diego Missionaries instead of OMBAC, or Seattle Bulldogs instead OPSRC might make more sense.

          BTW, google Charlotte Royals Rugby Football Club, & wait about 15 secs for the Yogi Bear song to come on. It’s an absolute Hoot!

          I came across it totally by accident looking up US rugby clubs the other week. The Royals are a gay rugby club, but they sure know how to be entertaining……….

          • January 23rd 2011 @ 11:29am
            Working Class Rugger said | January 23rd 2011 @ 11:29am | ! Report


            Over time I think we will see the one city RSL develop but with a significant amount of resistance by those clubs who still believe they are the future of Rugby in the USA. You just need to have a brief conversation with NYAC coach Bruce MacLane to realise that. That said a majority did vote Utah in even if it required the RSL Chairman Sean Kelly to cast the decisive one. It proves that there are progressive among them. One such is OPSB who are looking at copying Utah and creating a regional select team from the rapidly growing Washington Rugby scene. Don’t know if they’ll keep the name OPSB but its a start to build teams Rugby communities can support. Another possible into the future is Sacremento. A very strong junior scene in particular. Currently developing their D1 and College teams.

            • January 23rd 2011 @ 5:15pm
              p.Tah said | January 23rd 2011 @ 5:15pm | ! Report

              ‘I think we will see the one city RSL develop but with a significant amount of resistance by those clubs who still believe they are the future of Rugby in the USA’ … Now where have I heard a national competition being held back but self interested clubs… Hmmmmmm. Seems it’s the same the world over.

              • January 23rd 2011 @ 5:59pm
                Working Class Rugger said | January 23rd 2011 @ 5:59pm | ! Report


                It does have an oddly familar feel to it.

              • January 26th 2011 @ 11:49am
                Tim said | January 26th 2011 @ 11:49am | ! Report

                I wouldn’t count on the transitions being mentioned. The South LAU is falling apart aside from Life right now, The Raptors are said to be inconsistent, and I have heard little talk of LasVegas wanting to make any moves from there current position. As for regional temas we had that and US Rugby pulled the plug. the LAU tournament could have been financed by LAU’s and all member clubs and USA Rugby, but instead they went for a more English approach of pro-style club comp. Our head of rugby is English afterall. We are a large nation with unique problems to overcome. Why not just take the existing LAU’s along with Canada’s Provinces and make a 11/12 team North American provincial championship backed by the IRB and USA Rugby and Rugby Canada. get some sponsors to off set major costs stipen the players to help with travel and relocation issues, and install an NPC style format like in NZ. That pulls Rugby up in the Americas, helps the best players get seen, and allows for the National team to scout more effectively. would put the league between RSL and the now defunct NA4– but that makes too much sense and is to practicle

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:02am
      rebelyell said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:02am | ! Report

      Thanks for pulling all that together WRC – top article and very exciting to see the yanks are finally starting to tap their rugby potential – And come the US olympic committee funding cycle which commences in 2012, they will be even better resourced at the elite level. If they keep progressing at this rate, it won’t be that long before they’re competitive at Teir 1 level !

      • January 26th 2011 @ 11:50am
        Tim said | January 26th 2011 @ 11:50am | ! Report

        only if 15’s becomes Olympic. We are narrow sighted and only see Gold…. USO wont poor funds into developing enough athletes to make us legit in15’s

    • January 23rd 2011 @ 10:12am
      Working Class Rugger said | January 23rd 2011 @ 10:12am | ! Report

      A prospective Eagles RWC squad. That’s a tough one. While I think the squad that pushed Georgia will likely be the same group that will travel to NZ its hard to give a prediction as the back end of the European season, 7s World Series and upcoming RSL will have a great deal of say in the final make up of the squad. Expect Ngwenya, Swiryn, Emerick, Clever, likely both the Malifa’s, Mike McDonald. Pretty much all of the Ealges professionally contracted player’s. As for bolters look to their 7s for inspiration. Zach Test and their Captain Matt Hawkins seem strong contenders. I suspect the recent trend of American professional will gain momentum after NZ.

      Yeah , they have a tough pool. Evidently, NBC have done their homework and are not pleased. I think they’ll definitely overcome Russia. They only lost out to a full strength Georgia in Tbilisi in the 90th minute of play (the Georgians had to rely on their traditional grunt to overcome them at the last .i.e. scrum) up until then the Eagles had them and if they had executed better would have comfortably won. As happy as I am to see the Russians there its going to be a painful experience.

      If the USA can produce competitive scorelines against both the Wallabies and Ireland they should be proud. I’m going to be bold here and say given their day they could very possibly push Italy. And if everything falls into line even beat them ,just!

      Their weakness is definitely in the pack but that more to do with lack of time together than poor quality. With a few minor tweaks they should provide enough ball to their backline which at full strength isn’t all that bad. Bascially Russia will be the game they will be targetting to win, Italy a possible upset but things need to go right nad against Aus and Ire limiting the damage.

      • January 26th 2011 @ 11:53am
        Tim said | January 26th 2011 @ 11:53am | ! Report

        the pack has plenty of time together…. we just have the wrong guys… most forwards have multiple caps on the squad. And we got pumped by all nations in our set play… we better pray for line outs because our scrum is a joke right now, and we got very little clean ball even in open play

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