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US Rugby World Cups: what will 2031 and 33 mean for the American game?

May 14, 2022

Show caption Naya Tapper scores a try against England at the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup, in Dublin. Photograph: Donall Farmer/PA

Rugby World Cup

From the grassroots to MLR and on to the corridors of power, rugby lovers are celebrating. But they know hard work looms

From the US men’s and women’s national teams to the boardroom at Meta, from the grassroots of the American game up to Capitol Hill, reaction to the award of the men’s Rugby World Cup 2031 and the women’s event in 2033 was the same.

Naya Tapper, a sevens Olympian and 15s Eagles wing, spoke for many: “I think it shows the growth of the sport and how far it’s come – and how far we have to go.”

American rugby union is celebrating but hard work lies ahead.

“It’s a beautiful thing to know I can attend a huge rugby event like the World Cup in the United States,” said Tapper, who ran track in high school then found rugby at college in North Carolina.

“But we need more eyes on the sport, which would lead to more players and a deeper pool depth and being able to get more scholarships, more professional rugby leagues, not just the national team or MLR for the men.”

Tapper and Perry Baker, twice world player of the year, are part of Premier Rugby Sevens, a start-up in which men and women play for equal pay and compete for one prize. Looking to the 15-a-side World Cups, its chief executive, Owen Scannell, said PR7s could help grow “the domestic audience as well as the path to the professional tiers, especially in the women’s game”.

Baker echoed Tapper, saying the World Cups must be used to help more young Americans find the sport, as he did in Florida with the Daytona Beach Coconuts, but also to provide a clearer path to the top.

“Remember the Olympics is going to be here in 2028,” Baker said, pointing to Los Angeles, where sevens will be played. “So the sky’s the limit, really.”

American rugby lovers, alas, know limits all too well. From high school to college, from the amateurs to the pros of Major League Rugby, clubs grapple with poor facilities and finance, with harsh winters which split the season in two, and with travel demands which challenge even the most dedicated team.

Tapper said the game needed to get into middle schools, to kids aged 11 to 13. Others said elementary schools were the prize.

Blaine Scully, a former Eagles wing and captain who played in the UK for Leicester and Cardiff, said US rugby needed “a pathway for all involved. When 2031-33 comes to pass, the 10-year-old American girl who sees the game for the first time, who falls in love with the sport, can join a team [and] become a player, coach, referee or fan for the rest of her life.”

Bob Kimmitt has enjoyed a long life in rugby – and in business and government. He played at West Point in the 1960s, the years when the sport took a tenuous hold, and helped establish the Washington Irish club. He also became an undersecretary at the US treasury, an ambassador to Germany and an independent director at Meta, formerly known as Facebook.

Predicting increased attention from such big business, Kimmitt said the World Cup award “shows how that rebirth, rejuvenation of rugby over the past 50 years has come to full fruition at the club level, the college level and importantly now at the professional level. And my hope is that [the World Cups have] the same effect on rugby in the United States that hosting the World Cup in 1994 had on US soccer.”

Dan Lyle, another former Eagles captain, played No8 in England for Bath and Leicester. He is now a director at AEG, a sports and entertainment giant.

He said: “‘Football has no legacy in America’. ‘The US has no history with the sport’. Those were the claims of some Fifa executives and reporters who backed Morocco or Brazil for the 1994 World Cup. [In 1988] it went to the US anyway and the result was a World Cup that drew 3.5 million fans at more than 68,900 per match over 52 games, a record that stands today. We are on the cusp of the ‘1988 moment’ for rugby.

“Why will the US rise? Simply, it is … about the sheer desire, backed by the natural resources of diversity, gender equality, respect, athleticism and inclusiveness America has in abundance.”

Nick Civetta competes for the ball at a lineout during a World Cup game against France in Fukuoka, Japan in 2019. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images

That’s the vision part. The hard work, Lyle said, will demand engagement with “the American sports complex of after-school programmes, scholastic, collegiate and professional leagues, ownership, public/private enterprise and more”, so “moms, dads, parks rec departments, athletic directors, broadcasters, brand managers and stadium GMs, along with hundreds of thousands of boys and girls, come to know rugby not just in passing but permanently”.

‘We can compete fiercely and respectfully’

Joe Biden, a rugby fan, backed the US bid. The Guardian was not able to speak to the president but it did find supportive voices in Washington.

One co-chair of the Congressional Rugby Caucus, the Washington DC House Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton, said: “Rugby has made a difference to the youth of the District of Columbia and across the country in terms of health, self-esteem, teamwork and social skills.”

From the other side of the Capitol, the Connecticut senator Chris Murphy said: “I was first introduced to rugby at Williams [College], and although I wasn’t very good, I loved the sport and made lifelong friends.”

Murphy and Holmes Norton both said they were excited the World Cups were coming. HR McMaster also welcomed the news. The retired general who was Donald Trump’s second national security adviser is known for his love of the game.

Calling rugby “the best contact team sport in the world … more exciting and safer than American football”, McMaster said: “As Americans learn about rugby I also hope that the sport will inform our political and social discourse.

“We can compete fiercely and respectfully. We all have our roles and there is no limit to what we can achieve if we work together as a team. And maybe even ESPN will broadcast more rugby instead of darts, cornhole and poker.”

Stranger things have happened.

Covid did nobody any favours but US national teams have recently struggled more than most, the men shipping 104 points to the All Blacks, the women 89 to England. The women will expect to do better at the World Cup in New Zealand this year but the men have not yet qualified for France ’23. To avoid last-chance play-offs, they must beat Chile this summer.

Nick Civetta, an Eagles second-row forward from Scarsdale, New York who has played for Newcastle, Doncaster and Oxford University, said: “Our goal is firmly focused on qualification this summer, which will be no small task.”

He also said: “The opportunity for investment into all levels of the sport that could come alongside a World Cup certainly astounds the typical American rugby player, who is habituated to the reality that rugby has never been a ‘monied’ sport.”

Major League Rugby, the competition in which Civetta plays for New York, is in its fifth season. Its salaries are not large and it does not have a big presence in mainstream media. Matt McCarthy covers it via his Rugby Wrap Up site and podcast. He said World Rugby’s “huge, game-changing investment in high schools, colleges, clubs, for men and women, sevens and 15s” would also “safeguard the future of Major League Rugby as a fully professional men’s 15s competition.

“The establishment of the pro league in Japan in the years before the 2019 World Cup shows what World Rugby knows must happen. Now the World Cups are coming to America, MLR simply cannot be allowed to fail.”

George Killebrew would not argue with that. He’s the MLR commissioner, working out of Texas.

He said: “If you remember, back [before the 1994 World Cup] it was more of, ‘If we bring the game to the US, a professional league will be born,’ which is what occurred with Major League Soccer. Ours is the exact opposite. If we are able to add a team or two a year over the next nine years, we’ll be a 28-team league in all the major markets in this country and in Canada by the time the game arrives.

“If you look at the US as measured by Nielsen, we are in seven of the largest 10 markets and all of our teams run camps and clinics, they have academy programs, they have relationships with colleges in those cities. So I think we’re well poised to be one of the contributors to the rise of rugby in North America.”

The LA Giltinis, in black, contest a scrum with New York at the LA Coliseum in April. Photograph: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for LA Giltinis

The New England Free Jacks have the best record in MLR this year. Their chief executive is Alex Magleby, a former Eagles flanker.

“Lots of work has been done to get to this stage,” he said, “in silos at times, perhaps. Now we can all get behind this momentum, with a fixed timeline for success.”

‘The stars of 2031 and 2033 have never touched a ball’

In Dublin, Alan Gilpin, chief executive of World Rugby, said significant investment was coming. Half-a-billion dollars has been floated before. At the announcement, Victoria Folayan, a US sevens player turned USA Rugby board member, said the women’s game would have equal access to all such funds.

In August 2020, USA Rugby exited bankruptcy. McCarthy said: “The big concern is that any and all funding is appropriated with strict purpose and accuracy. We have an abysmal record in doing those things to date in America.”

Others had similar concerns. Lara Vivolo, once an Eagles prop, now coach to women’s teams including New York Rugby Club and Greenwich High School, said: “As a PE teacher, I teach roughly 400 students a year. There have to be resources, equipment and trainers who can push into elementary schools and teach PE teachers about the sport.”

The former Eagles fly-half Matt Sherman is head coach of Army West Point, the men’s national collegiate champions. He said the World Cups presented “a tremendous opportunity and a tremendous challenge. I think the challenge is to grow rugby appropriately, so it can be presented well, and then really accelerate. But I think if we don’t do the work, building up to the World Cups, it will not make the impact it’s capable of.

“If we invest heavily in youth and high-school growth, and we create a proper fanbase that supports a great event, I think we will get more attention from college athletics. administrators seeing the value in the sport and wanting to invest more in it.”

'It's amazing': UK, Australia and USA to host men's and women's Rugby World Cups – video

Sherman’s Army team is well funded. Others, less so.

Carille Guthrie, a former college player, is president of the James G Robertson Clive Sullivan Rugby Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to increase participation among Black and indigenous Americans and other people of colour.

She said: “The rugby community has toted rugby as the fastest growing sport in the US. But for many of us working at the grassroots level, that growth feels lethargic, stymied and one-sided. Finding funding, sponsorship and support for teams outside of the insular rugby community is frustrating, arduous and at times soul-crushing.

“It is my hope that the support of the Rugby World Cup reverberates to less visible rugby communities, like inner-city youth teams and rugby at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“It’s highly likely that the stars of the Eagles’ 2031 and 2033 World Cup teams have never touched a ball before today. I look forward to seeing USA Rugby actively foster youth rugby by funding grassroots efforts, providing accessible camps and trainings and engaging with diverse rugby communities.”

Katherine Aversano, women’s coach at Howard University, a HBCU in Washington DC, echoed Guthrie’s concerns.

She said: “The lead-up to the RWC ’31 and ’33 will be the biggest test of the US rugby community’s ability to come together and expand the game to people who have traditionally been excluded. If we do this correctly, all of the grassroots efforts … will thrive.

“Who we are as American rugby depends on the participation of everyone.”

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