Exciting times for rugby in America
The Americas qualification process for Rugby World Cup 2015 is entering the latter stages with USA and Canada set to lock horns in a two-leg play-off to determine the Americas 1 qualifier who will join France, Ireland, Italy and the Europe 2 qualifier in Pool D.
The first leg takes place in Charleston, South Carolina, on Saturday and for the hosts this match comes at a time when rugby is flourishing in the country and enjoying unprecedented levels of popularity.
Rugby is currently the fastest growing team sport in the US with an estimated 1.13 million Americans already involved in the Game. This level of participation exceeds that of more established rugby nations such as Wales and Scotland, and the work done to develop the Game domestically clearly represents ambitions well beyond RWC 2015.
USA Rugby has developed an award-winning grass-roots programme, Rookie Rugby (a domestic version of touch rugby played in schools, parks and recreational leagues across the country) which has been one of the key reasons for the sport’s meteoric rise.
The strong leadership and innovative approach shown by USA Rugby has led to people of all ages and backgrounds falling in love with the sport, and the women’s game currently accounts for one third of all rugby played in the US.
On top of being able to boast one of the largest female player bases anywhere in the world, the national team has already reached two Women’s Rugby World Cup finals and wrote their names in the history books by winning the inaugural tournament in 1991.
USA Rugby has confirmed that it wants to bring rugby’s showcase tournament to the country, and the International Rugby Board, whose objectives for the USA include growing the fan base, increasing the competitiveness of the men’s national team and ensuring a strong television platform for the sport, has always been a vocal supporter of this idea.
The American Way
“It would be exciting for a number of reasons, not only because of the amount of money it would earn for the Game but because it is great to see it in a different context and this is what the World Cup is for,” said IRB Chief Executive Brett Gosper.
The nation has already successfully staged an IRB tournament, hosting the IRB Junior World Rugby Trophy in Salt Lake City in 2012. The Junior All Americans won the tournament and were promoted to the elite tier, the Junior World Championship 2013 in France.
Another defining moment came in October 2009 when the International Olympic Committee announced that Rugby Sevens would be included in the 2016 and 2020 Olympic Games. This came as another boost for the development of rugby in the US, opening the doors to Olympic funded resources which will no doubt elevate the Game’s profile through increased investment and greater TV coverage.
At Rugby World Cup 2011 in New Zealand, matches were broadcast live on national television in the US for the first time. This formed part of an agreement between Universal Sports Network, NBC Sports and the IRB which also includes the rights to broadcast all RWC 2015 matches. In practice this means that US viewers will be able to enjoy full, multi-platform coverage of all 48 matches at England 2015, including two matches (one of which will be the RWC Final) which will air either live or on ‘same day delay’ on NBC Sports.
The rugby community in the US will no doubt be hoping that victory over Canada and good performances at RWC 2015, seen on TV by record numbers of viewers back home, will act as a catalyst to inspire even more people to take up the sport.
With the ground-breaking work that USA Rugby has done in getting youngsters interested in and playing rugby, combined with the country’s tradition of producing world-class athletes, the potential for long-term success across the board is huge.
The play-off against Canada in Charleston and next weekend in Toronto will be played against a backdrop of unparalleled popularity for the sport at home, and USA Rugby seems to be already making good on its promise “to inspire the rugby world the American Way”.