LONDON, 1 Oct – Ten years ago Nate Osborne made the journey from Australia to the USA and fell in love twice, first with the woman who would become his wife, and second with coaching rugby.
The Eagles backs coach stayed in Minnesota and has seen the popularity of the sport blossom in his adopted country in the past decade. Last year he joined head coach Mike Tolkin's set-up.
Some of the USA squad at Rugby World Cup 2015 are amateurs but Osborne is convinced that they can surprise a few people at the tournament and in the future.
"It’s been unreal,” said Osborne said, both of his route to RWC 2015 and the growth of rugby in the past 10 years.
“When I first moved to America it didn’t seem like there was much rugby. It was one of those sports that people started playing in college, or when they were done with NFL, or they were just doing it for fun.”
Growth takes off
There are now almost 110,000 players registered with USA Rugby and it is one of the fastest-growing sports in the country. The sport is offered at high school and college level with an increasing number of college scholarships available for promising players. Osborne said the rising numbers playing the game had contributed to improving performances too.
The appeal of the USA perhaps winning an Olympic medal in rugby sevens is also helping the sport’s growth. But Osborne said he believed more could still be done.
“There needs to be some sort of pro league in the States to grow the game, getting people wanting to play the game, not just jumping over because they didn’t make it in NFL,” he said. “You’ve got to put on a product that people want to watch.”
Although superficially there are similarities between rugby and NFL, relatively few players have made the leap from one to the other – a notable exception being Eagles lock Hayden Smith, who spent a season with the New York Jets before returning to rugby.
Making the switch
Osborne said there were other popular American sports where the switch could actually be easier.
“Minnesota is a big hockey state, the hockey guys transfer pretty well, they understand space. Basketball’s the same, they understand what the defence is doing,” he explained. “The biggest thing with the NFL compared to rugby is that you really just have one position. We want our centres to be able to pass. In NFL you’re either defence or offence, (whereas in rugby) we ask to be both.”
Osborne added that moving from NFL to rugby was “way bigger than from league to union".
The national team still had the ability to surprise in their remaining two RWC matches, against South Africa and Japan.
“We know where we are and we just need to stick to what we do,” he said. “When we do that we’ll start shocking some people.”