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USA Rugby to scrum down as 2031 World Cup host

FILE - Will Jordan of the All Blacks breaks with the ball during the 1874 rugby cup against the USA Eagles. Photo: AFP

FILE - Will Jordan of the All Blacks breaks with the ball during the 1874 rugby cup against the USA Eagles. Photo: AFP

Published May 15, 2022

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Cape Town - After the US were confirmed in Dublin this week as hosts of the 2031 men’s and 2033 women’s Rugby World Cups, two main challenges are clear: garnering real interest from the American sports market, and ensuring that the USA Eagles are a truly competitive team in a decade’s time.

Ross Young, the CEO of USA Rugby, feels that America are well equipped logistically to make the hosting of the tournament a success.

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But he admits that the organisers will need help from various sporting and other entities in North America, as well as World Rugby.

“It’s huge, and the other hosts have mentioned this reverse legacy aspect. You mention that nobody knew it happened (Springboks v Wales in 2018 in Washington), but we still had 30 000-odd there in the venue, with a game that was a bit last-minute … that didn’t have the volume and connectivity with a run-up to a World Cup,” Young said during a press conference at the World Rugby headquarters in Dublin this week.

“It’s all part of building it up, and as we have been partnering with World Rugby in this process, the technical and operation capabilities, the venues … we’ve got 28 venues of over 60 000 (capacity) and a couple of over 100 000. That’s the easy part, in some ways.

World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin (left) and USA Rugby counterpart Ross Young inspect NFL side Denver Broncos’ home ground, the Empower Field at Mile High, earlier this year. Photo: @USARugby/Twitter

“But the tough part is going to be the intangibles around the engagement – getting rugby balls in young boys and young girls’ hands, to allow them to get a taste of what the game is about – and as everyone has talked about, the aspirational feeling around the hosting of that event.

“It isn’t going to be easy, but 48 games spread across the country, in the right venues that are going to be put together in the right way, is eminently achievable. We are very confident of that.”

ALSO READ: The doors are open, says USA Rugby after being confirmed as 2031 World Cup hosts

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World Rugby CEO Alan Gilpin pointed to the concerns expressed when Japan were awarded the 2019 edition, and said that those proved to be unfounded.

“Even a couple of years out, people were saying for Japan 2019, that you are never going to sell the tickets for this tournament – every single game was sold out,” Gilpin said.

“We’ve got a bit of history doing this, and what we’ve got here is the right type of runway with the team to build that interest. Yes, there is a lot of work to do in building the awareness of the sport in the US, but this is a market that gets big events – and that is what we are going to talk to them about.”

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The US is a sports-mad country, to the extent that even local competitions such as the NBA and World Series baseball are globally recognised events.

But ensuring that the USA Eagles can reach the heights of the Japanese side in 2019 is another matter altogether.

Whereas Japan had an established rugby team that beat the Boks at the 2015 tournament, the Eagles are nowhere near that level.

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South Africa’s former Bok assistant coach Gary Gold is in charge of the US national team, so they have the coaching expertise available, but producing world-class rugby players in nine years will be a mammoth task.

The most recognisable US star is flyhalf-fullback AJ Mcginty, who plays for Sale in England, while there are several with South African connections – including centre/wing Marcel Brache, scrumhalf Ruben de Haas and loose forward Hanco Germishuys.

“It’s been well publicised that there is a huge amount of work going on with the men’s 15 game around not just the content we have in the international window, that is more meaningful for everybody – and engage more fans and get people excited about that – but how do we make sure that USAS, Japans, Fijis and Uruguays, that next group of emerging nations, get the competition they need and they deserve to make them more competitive in the big moments,” Gilpin said.

“So, that’s a massive focus for us. There are a lot of positive conversations continuing. There’s great momentum behind that … there’s a recognition of a need for that across the game, and from a World Rugby perspective – as we look at a 10-year-plus plan – this is all about driving investment towards that.

“This is all about making sure we do what we say on the tin: that we deliver a global game for everybody. That’s why we are making decisions that we are making now.”

For Young, growing the local Major League Rugby (MLR) competition is a vital part to strengthening the Eagles by 2031.

“We have to build a plan now. We have to look at it as a region. We have to create those aspirational pathways for the younger athletes now, making sure that they are aware of the opportunities,” he said.

“We’ve got a fledgling league in Major League Rugby, which has opportunities. We’ve got the WPL, which has been running for a number of years now as an almost semi-pro league for women. We’ve got a professional sevens league that has just started …

“We’ve shown in sevens, and talked about the decade of sport – we’ve got the Fifa World Cup in ’26, we’ve got the Olympics in LA in ’28, and now we’ve got ’31 and ’33. We have to utilise all of them to help build and grow, and we are obviously targeting medals and gold medals in LA.

“There is a funding disparity in that, and we don’t have the same capability to play regular calendarised games in 15s, both men’s and women. That’s really taken a huge step forward with the Pacific Four competition, and the WXV series – and we have to address that in the men’s side as well.

“More meaningful games, raising the profile will certainly I think generate the interest to allow us to kick on and do that.

“They (MLR) are obviously a key stakeholder, as they are the professional domestic league. They have had their growing pains, they have had their issues.

“We’ve already got some provisional dates to have some joint meetings with them (as to) how do they position best as stakeholders, because it’s also – for a country of the scale and size as the US – not just about what they do on the field for their matches, but about how they use their footprint and engage with the communities that they’re based in, which will ultimately raise their levels.

“Also discussions about having more US (Eagles) players playing in the MLR. Our best players are scattered all over the world, so how do we get players back in (to the MLR) and hopefully the MLR organically raises the bar with regards to playing standards as well domestically.

“Everybody needs to buy into it collectively, from the high schools – it’s all about realising the potential that we know is there.”\

@ashfakmohamed

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