Rugby’s glitzy American cousin will soon be in the global spotlight once more as the Super Bowl rolls around again. The pinnacle of the American Football season highlights the best and brightest fighting to claim the ultimate prize in front of a global audience of over 111 million. Superbowl XLVIII sees the Seattle Seahawks take on the Denver Broncos in a chilly New Jersey on Sunday.
— Super Bowl (@SuperBowl) January 23, 2014
The popularity and commercial value of this annual contest are a world away from where rugby currently finds itself in the US.
Despite a shared heritage, the sports took very different paths. While Football has gone on to claim record audiences, high salaries and top sponsorship deals, rugby has traditionally had a small but dedicated band of fans and players who play for the love of the game.
There have been some promising signs for rugby in recent years at all levels but those of us who love the sport can see the potential and want more. As of 2016, rugby will once again be an Olympic event, albeit in the 7-a-side format. Rugby was last played in the Olympics in 1924 and USA are the reigning Champions.
The recent Las Vegas 7s, the annual American leg of the 7’s circuit saw audience numbers rise, both at the Sam Boyd stadium and on TV. There is the sense that continued persistence to grow rugby here will in time pay dividends to both USA Rugby and the International Rugby Board.
Could the answer to growing the game lie in a closer partnership between American football and rugby? Could those professional athletes who failed to make the grade for their football teams have a future in rugby? And could one of the top names in US rugby feature in a future Super Bowl?
— Keith Dray (@kefman86) January 3, 2014
Moving from American Football to Rugby
The drive for a sustainable domestic league here in the US continues with rumours of English Premiership and Super 15 hook ups mentioned on a regular basis. Another option to grow the game relates to working with the NFL teams to promote the sport either in tandem with their games, or by encouraging their discarded players to move across to rugby union.
A supposed high profile signing of Tim Tebow, the former Patriots, Jets and Broncos quarterback (who is currently between jobs) got Twitter all a flutter in 2013. But Tim was not for turning.
— Guisseppi J (@JHarahan) September 1, 2013
One player who has already made the move is Hayden Smith who recently moved back to English Premier side Saracens following his 18 month spell with the New York Jets. Smith’s return to Union is great news for USA Rugby and I would expect to see Smith back in the Eagles fold in the near future.
Brown University alum, Miles Craigwell is another USA sevens player. Following his graduation from Brown, Craigwell went on to sign for the Miami Dolphins before switching his talents to rugby.
While American Footballer players are no doubt supreme athletes and could add value to the game physically, this perception that all they have to do is turn up and pass backwards and they’ll be rugby players is alarming. Any mass influx of players completely overlooks the technical and mental aspects of the game as well as rugby specific skill development.
*Graphic accurate for rugby 7s players. Source: @RugbyOnslaught
I don’t believe it would do the sport any favour to try to build a league based on purely physical strengths when to compete at an international level it’s the technical rugby brains that need to be nurtured. Any domestic league should aim to build on the players who are coming through the growing number of high school and college rugby programmes. Give them regular competitive games and a strong coaching structure to develop their skills and appreciation for the game. I have no doubt that this would in time, be of huge benefit to our national Eagles rugby team.
Moving from Rugby to American Football
The truly gifted are always looking for a chance to challenge their capabilities and it is not unusual for elite sportsmen or women to change sports to test their skills. All Black, Sonny Bill Williams has seen incredible success in Rugby Union, Rugby League and as a boxer. Australian rugby star, Quade Cooper recently won his second boxing fight, demonstrating that some sports can in fact compliment each other.
— j.Mesk (@jandellomeskiel) January 28, 2014
Arguably USA Rugby’s most recognised name globally, speedster Carlin Isles, took the chance to try his blistering pace against the best in American Football. The former athletic star is still learning the 7s format of rugby but jumped at the chance to sign for the Detroit Lions practice squad. With the seasons structured as they are currently, Isles felt he could continue to participate in both sports, and was quick to quash any suggestion at the time that the move was permanent. He has since said he will be stepping away from rugby for a while to concentrate on the Lions. Rugby’s loss is football’s gain.
While rugby cannot match the salaries that even the less well-known names in American Football command, there is always a danger that the sport could be stripped of its stars. However, in the immediate future could Isles excelling in the NFL actually help raise the profile of rugby in the US?
Moving Forward Together
There are benefits and disadvantages to traffic going in either direction but it’s clear there is no quick fix in some of the options currently being discussed.
For true development at elite level, players need to play quality rugby. This season has seen Eagles players finding places with European sides such as Chris Wyles at Sacarens, Blaine Scully at Leicester, Scott LaValla at Stade Francais, and, Samu Manoa and Cam Dolan at Northampton to name a few. This is a positive trend. Until we have a high level, professional rugby league in place here in the States, US rugby players are better served trying to pick up a contract abroad in well-established rugby leagues.
This is a very difficult task as there is a limit on how many “foreigners” are allowed dress for game days in a rugby match. European rugby teams tend to stick with the tried and trusted formula of giving these “foreigner spots” to New Zealanders or Australians as opposed to Americans. For years, I have been saying that European teams need to start looking very closely at the calibre of athlete the USA produces. I hope and believe that we will see more and more Americans given opportunities to ply their trade in Europe’s top rugby leagues.
There is a saying that the name on the back of the shirt should never be more important than the name on the front and while teams made up of ex-NFL stars may bring the potential of commercial sponsorship and a fanbase, they will not be bringing quality rugby to a wider audience. Surely that has to be the end goal.
I am all for football players joining the rugby ranks and welcome them with open arms but we need to be realistic about the impact this will have on rugby in the US. Legendary Green Bay running back, Ahman Green declared his interest in trying out for the USA 7s team, in the hope of competing at the 2016 Olympics. Green has trained with the Eagles in the Olympic Training Centre in Chula Vista and was at the recent Las Vegas 7s. 7-a-side rugby is a young man’s game and Green will be 39 by 2016. Is this a reality? Unfortunately, I do not think so. Having said that, any opportunity for rugby and football to start working closely is a great thing. The two sports can massively compliment each other and after all, are derived from the same game.
— Super Bowl (@SuperBowl) January 27, 2014
Sunday’s Superbowl XLVIII will be a fantastic spectacle and no other nation knows how to put on a show, better then the USA. Questions still remain. Will Manning lead the Broncos to glory in his first year with them? Will Seahawks’ Richard Sherman have a speech prepared? Will we see any of these Superbowl players represent the USA Eagles in the future at the Olympics?
Time will tell….