22 Oct 2021

Rugby's North American conquest - fact or fiction?

10:22 am on 22 October 2021

The All Blacks play the United States in Washington DC on Sunday morning and while World Rugby has big plans for growing the game North America, the reality on the ground paints a picture of a sport struggling to gain a foothold.

US Fans. Maori All Blacks v USA. Chicago. 2016.

Photo: Photosport Ltd 2016 www.photosport.nz

The All Blacks last played the US in 2014, winning 74-6, with the game in Chicago heralded as the start of a rugby movement in America.

However, seven years later and the sport in North America seems to have gone backwards.

Canada recently failed to qualify for the 2023 World Cup, missing the tournament for the first time, while the US chances of making it to France are on a knife edge after losing to Uruguay.

The Eagles must beat Chile in a home and away playoff next year to book their place at the tournament and their coach, former Springboks assistant Gary Gold, says the US, who until July hadn't played together since 2019, have paid the price for inactivity.

"We were thrown into a World Cup qualifier off the back of not having been assembled since the last Rugby World Cup. Teams like Uruguay and Chile, we were beating both those teams by 70 points three years ago. It can't just be that all of a sudden USA and Canada rugby are shit. When you look at the facts, they've (South American teams) just played and we haven't.

"We had two games this year before the qualifiers and between the 2019 World Cup, whereas the All Blacks and Wallabies etc had played about a dozen matches in the same time."

The South American nations' domestic competitions weren't as affected as North America's Major League Rugby, which was cancelled in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic.

Gold believes the solution to strengthening American rugby, is simple.

"Our next objective is to not be playing three or four World Cup qualification matches after not being together for two years, but to hopefully have a substantial schedule of anything from 13 to 16 test matches a year. Where we can spend significant time together, we can continue to play together and continue to improve together."

Gold gets his wish this weekend with an extra test against the All Blacks, but it's unlikely a one-sided affair in Washington DC will help grow the game in the US.

With the match outside World Rugby's international window the Eagles are missing most of their top players and while appreciative of the chance to play the All Blacks, Gold concedes the timing is poor.

"Our focus point at the moment right now is Rugby World Cup qualification and to now have to face the All Blacks and prepare to face a team of that calibre, with most of our experienced guys missing, is a daunting prospect."

Give their recent struggles it would seem odd the US is bidding to host the 2027 or 2031 men's World Cup and 2029 women's World Cup.

While optimistic about the future of the sport in North America, Gold says Covid brought US rugby to its knees.

"The landscape for North American rugby and particularly the US is, down the line, quite encouraging. Major League Rugby is established and into its fourth year, albeit with last year affected by Covid and the depth of players is growing.

"But, right now we (USA Rugby) is in a dark place.

"Covid hit us harder than most (rugby unions) because it led to our bankruptcy."

Gold concedes a heavy defeat on Sunday won't help the Eagles, and fans and pundits could be forgiven for asking why the extra test has been shoehorned into the schedule.

Former New Zealand Rugby boss, David Moffett, says the answer is obvious.

"Well it's simply about one thing isn't it? It's about money. In some respects I don't blame them (New Zealand Rugby) if they're going to get a really good pay day from it because they (NZR) have been crying poor for quite some time."

Depending on ticket sales, the match is expected to make New Zealand Rugby between $2 to $3 million, but will it have an impact on the numbers of players Stateside or the strength of American rugby?

Moffett believes it wont and says World Rugby have failed to heed the lessons of history when it comes to growing the game in the land of the free.

"They don't look at history, World Rugby.

"Have a look at how long it's taken soccer, the most popular game in the world, and a hell of a lot more popular than rugby is ever going to be, took 40 to 50 years to establish itself in the US.

"America may very well prove to be a very lucrative place for rugby to grow. But, it's not going to be in our lifetimes."

The chances of the US winning on Sunday are extremely slim, they've never scored a try against New Zealand in four previous tests, and the All Blacks coach Ian Foster concedes the hosts are up against it.

"Clearly they're going to lose a few players who are playing for overseas clubs and who won't be released for this test and there's no doubt that that's going to weaken them.

"They've also had the disappointment of their World Cup qualifying not going to plan. So, how they're going to approach this? I'm not too sure."