It is impossible to ignore that today is the tenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in New York. It seems somehow scripted that today is also the first day of America's Rugby World Cup campaign.
As such I have asked Caleb Borchers to give his thoughts on US Rugby and the Eagles at this tournament.
This Thursday, I will live as a foreigner in his own country. As the prime time kick-off of another NFL season approaches, all the sports fans in the United States of America will be breathlessly awaiting the commencement of another year of football. After the horror of a lockout relief will flood the land. And to some degree, I will be excited too. My fantasy team is selected and once more my beloved Detroit Lions have hope.
Still, there will be a certain smallness to the kick-off for me. See unlike the vast majority of those around me, the kick-off that I am awaiting happens some eight hours later. Years ago rugby took my heart from "gridiron" or "American footy" or whatever the rest of the world calls it. I still love the NFL and watch weekly. It’s just that I find rugby faster, more athletic, and more exciting. As such, my biggest thrill of the weekend will be watching the haka when I watch New Zealand and Tonga start the quest for the Webb Ellis Cup.
Rugby in the United States is slowly but surely growing. USA Rugby is always shooting out press releases about the growth of the youth game. As yet I have still not yet met a child who plays rugby. Still, I don't doubt the veracity of reports of growth. College rugby is on the rise. A national 7s tournament now graces NBC each summer. Several friends have sent me messages noting how much they enjoyed watching that tournament. NBC also has snapped up the rights to the next two World Cups. All of the USA games will be shown either on NBC or Universal Sports. In 2007 the best one could do for coverage was a PPV subscription on a satellite network, so the Final appearing on network TV is a huge jump. Undoubtedly the Olympics play a key role. NBC puts the vast majority of their sports money into Olympic events and Universal Sports (a subsidiary of NBC) is devoted only to Olympic sports.
This World Cup does have the chance to help capture the imagination of the American audience. I would venture to say that the All Blacks are the most recognizable rugby brand in the world. Often when I mention my love of rugby the first response is, "Isn't that the sport where they scream and slap themselves before the game?" I'm not sure if it is the haka, the ominous black jersey, or the unparalleled success, but Americans are just drawn to the All Blacks. New Zealand, since the Lord of the Rings trilogy or earlier, has been a favourite dream destination of many American tourists. I meet few people that don't know someone who has visited Aotearoa or even gone themselves. But it isn't just the place, it is the team. New Zealand plays an attractive game of rugby. Increasingly American Football fans tire of the old "two yards and a cloud of dust" tactic of years gone past. The NFL and NCAA are now all about spread offenses, prolific passing, and passer ratings. When those attitudes switch to rugby, pick and drives are hardly appealing. American fans want to see the crash and bash of a Ma'a Nonu or the slicing counter-attack of an Israel Dagg. Both the style and the brand of the All Blacks draw many American fans, as they do fans all over the globe. Many casual fans will linger awhile if they see an attacking All Blacks side on national TV the Sunday of the final.
New Zealand's appeal seems to have worked its way into visitor numbers as well. RWC bosses have been pleasantly surprised at some 10,000 fans coming from the Americas. I've yet to hear how many of those are USA fans, but my guess would be about half or better of the 10,000. My wife and I are actually coming for two weeks of the tournament. We will see the USA play Australia, but are most excited about Samoa and Fiji at Eden Park. Many American rugby fans like myself see this tournament as a unique opportunity. We are far more excited about traveling to New Zealand than we would be going to England or France. The appeal of seeing rugby in its spiritual home was just too much to pass on.
The USA Eagles have a role to play in rugby's growth as well. Their September 11th match with Ireland will also be on free network TV. A team in red, white, and blue playing on that day may attract a few eyeballs, even with the NFL kicking off. Unfortunately the Eagles don't look great this year. Eddie O'Sullivan seemed to be the right coach for this team. Word on the street was that he was a great teacher. He could take the raw athletes and train them in the finer rugby arts. The results just aren't there. Mike Hercus, after repeated failures to truly master the USA national side or a European club, is now gone and has been replaced by Nese Malifa. Malifa may be the lesser of possible evils, but his play has been shockingly bad this summer. He frequently shanks punts, drop kicks, and place kicks. The most shocking moment was when he dropped a pass in the end zone, literally handing the Canadians a try. The Eagles also have a befuddling habit of playing Malifa further behind the ruck than most international fly-halves stand for drop goals. American ball is thus static, players flat footed, and momentum nearly impossible to build. It’s too bad because the outside backs are legitimate weapons. Everyone knows what Takudzwa Ngwenya can do. Paul Emerick and Chris Wyles are legitimate international players. Wyles was sorely missed this summer while playing sevens for Saracens. (Don't think that the IRB has yet fixed the problem of limiting players at RWC time due to club commitments. An American lock, Samu Manoa, is contractually inhibited from playing at this year's tournament thanks to Northampton Saints.) Andrew Suniula looks to have some similar abilities to Nonu or Manu Tuilangi, just less honed by inferior play in
an American club.
The talisman of the Eagles is undoubtedly Todd Clever. Clever is the American player par excellence. He is athletic and abrasive. He was born in the States (a rarity in the national team) and took up rugby at what most of the world would call a late age. He has gone across the world to find game time and experience. American fans were certainly proud when they saw him take on the British and Irish Lions as a member of the Golden Lions. Clever is the sort of player with the sort of career that young players can look up to. He also has the flaws that most Americans have. At times it seems like he just has to think a little too much, instead of relying on childhood founded instincts. His accuracy can be lacking. When he gets really worked up he plays with too much heart, with his adrenaline out-running his good sense. Most of the best and worst attributes of American rugby lie in this one individual. If anyone is going to front the media or show up in a commercial, it is Todd.
Clever and Malifa are great examples, in opposite ways, of the problem that USA rugby just cannot crack. The domestic game is just not good enough. As such players like Malifa have little hope of really making an impact at test level. The professional environment has left many Eagles miles behind their opponents. In order to really grow, American players have to move abroad for opportunity. Some like Ngwenya, Wyles, and Mike McDonald have done that with stunning success. Clever has been more of a wandering soul, but that may be his choice as much as his lot in life. Still, European clubs are not yet lining up for American players the way they line up for Argentines, Samoans, or even Georgian props.
I believe the Eagles are the key to growth in the USA. American soccer enthusiasts will tell you, youth programs are great, but the men's national team is key. Soccer was a strong youth sport as early as the 1970s in the States. It was not until the 1994 World Cup and growth of the men's national team that people really started to pay attention. Many of the American players that brought that success did so playing for European clubs. National team success slowly grew into a feasible professional league (MLS). That is the blueprint for rugby. Olympics and sevens have been shots in the arm, but rugby does not want track and field audiences that show up every four years and then disappear. The real question is when the US market becomes too important to pass on. Every once and awhile SANZAR toys with us and suggests that they will throw America a bone like a Super franchise or Bledisloe Cup game. I am of the opinion that a USA Bledisloe would far out perform the interest in Hong Kong, but the NZRU does not agree. Frankly, the earliest rugby pioneers here in the States face financial risk and the big boys of rugby are risk adverse right now.
And so we return to the World Cup. The Eagles need to play well. First mission is to beat Russia. Second mission will be to play respectably against Ireland. While Italy would be an easier, but similarly unlikely, victory, the attention they will get playing on September 11th on national TV makes Ireland the more important test. Scare the Irish like the Georgians did in '07 and people will take note. Every four years hope springs eternal that one of these years Americans will finally pay attention to the game that they have no good reason not to love. Until that day, I'll be by myself taking in all the action while my neighbours walk through another routine season of the NFL.