What I like about the new US Major League Rugby is the sheer enthusiasm for and the absolute optimism about their new competition.
I have not been privy to the major network broadcasts, but the streaming services are just gold. You have a guy who is probably a professional sports commentator and has done his best to learn about this crazy game and a guy sitting alongside him who knows about the game, so it’s a bit of a lesson in rugby, but I find it absolutely refreshing to see this world superpower, with its humongous population, just beginning to appreciate this beautiful game.
The commentators have had some great chats about the advantage law, which seems to have generally found favour, and the fact that the kicker takes his conversion attempt from wherever the try was scored. There are a fair few references to NFL, but in general, it is pretty entertaining commentary.
I’m not sure how many people in the crowd know what is going on, but you would have to think it is a fair number because most of the franchises are using OPS – shorthand for other peoples’ stadiums – and they are not massive. For example, my team the Utah Warriors, who are coached by Chris Latham, are using a football stadium that only seats 3500, but has incredible indoor and outdoor training facilities. In other words, they are sensibly not getting ahead of themselves.
Unfortunately, the Warriors went down in a close one with Atlanta, but there are great signs for the future. And the wonderful thing about them, which instantly endeared me, was the fact that they are raising funds for Aussie bushfire relief, and I doubt that it was anything Latham thought up because he has only been there for about two weeks.
I have been a great admirer of USA Rugby for many years and have watched its latest gestation from about ten or so years ago when a Kiwi and a Pom took it by the horns.
The Kiwi was Kevin Roberts, then the worldwide chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi – a little PR firm.
The Pom was Nigel Melville, a former England skipper, and together they set about getting rugby into schools and forming a grassroots organisation, because up until that time, most blokes did not learn rugby until they were in college and college rugby was largely and massively amateur – more of a “drinking club with a rugby problem” culture.
So these blokes got the structure into some sort of shape and I would be doing USA Rugby a disservice if I kept banging on because obviously many other good people got themselves into the mix, and I don’t know who they are.
It’s taken a dozen or so years, and a false start or two, but USA Rugby is in a good place. Winning Olympic recognition was huge because that meant that it gets funding and puts the code on the map.
The US men’s sevens team is now hovering around the number two position in the world rankings, and we all know that if you can be number two then you can be number one on any given day.
I have always said that the USA is the sleeping giant of world rugby. We can all remember the movie Gulliver’s Travels when the giant wakes up, yawns, bellows, farts, looks around then breaks the shackles.
That is what is going to happen to world rugby.
If you think the big franchises in America aren’t interested in MLR, don’t worry. Three of the franchises have Australian ownership and I believe that there is also European ownership. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the NFL franchises didn’t take an interest a little way down the track and now there is this NFL-X comp getting started that has an actual salary cap – they will be looking for talented sportsmen (and hopefully women too). The USA could become the new Japan and already Drew Mitchell and Adam Ashley-Cooper have signed.
This thing will work, or a lot of people will go down trying. I’m excited.
Then look at some other dynamics.
South Africa re-aligns with Europe, then Japan and the Pacific align closer with the southern hemisphere. Think about who is in our time zone: China, Japan, Hong Kong, the Pacific. We could end up seeing a world competition with conferences based on time zones – Europe, the Stans, Asia, Oceania, the Americas.
Think about that: a real and meaningful world championship.