Will American Rugby Ever Touchdown In The Pro 14?
By The Way - Weekly Columns
The Pro14, not to be confused with France’s Top14, has been through several incarnations in it’s short history. Beginning life in 1999 as the Welsh-Scottish league, sharing 2001 with the Celtic League before becoming the fully-fledged entity in 2002. Further change came in 2003 as the Welsh representation became region based rather than the traditional clubs. More flux followed in ensuing seasons as financial constraints saw sides like Celtic Warriors and Border Reivers leave the scene, but things eventually settled, for a while. The league would expand in 2010 as a pair of Italian sides joined the fray, with a rebranding the following year to "The Pro12". The Italian sides involved have changed over the seasons without ever threatening to leave the basement or significantly increase the league’s finances. The latest, and certainly most ambitious, expansion took place in 2017. Whilst the branding of the league made the obvious change from Pro12 to Pro14, the source of the new teams was far from obvious. The Celtic League as a set up was an attempt to provide the less wealthy nations of Europe’s elite with a competition that would rival England’s Premiership and the aforementioned Top14. It was hoped it would also go some way to closing the financial gap. The addition of the Italian teams made sense as they had been toiling in the 6 Nations for a few seasons. The latest recruits though didn’t come from an up and coming European nation such as Georgia. Nope, the net was cast wider, to South Africa. After a restructuring of the Super Rugby competition involving New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Japan and Argentina, two South African franchises found themselves with no-one to play. The Kings and The Cheetahs were deemed surplus to requirements, so sensing the moment was right for all parties, they became the 13th and 14th members of the “Pro” set up. Barely had this season started than the top men at Pro14 HQ had another brainwave. Searching for a way to increase exposure and the coffers they’ve hit upon the idea of expansion into North America. It’s brave, it’s bonkers, but could it work? Unlike the leagues in England and France, Pro14 sides are not the playthings of wealthy owners, they are owned and run by the respective Union’s of each country. To that end, any side placed in North America will be backed by it’s home union so should have reasonably stable management. The hope would be that the large communities of Italian and Celtic immigrants could be persuaded to take an interest, either in person or via some sort of TV deal. Neither the US or Canada has made ,much headway in recent years in the 15-a-side game, but both have been improving in the World 7s, so setting up a “club” side like this could be a major boost. The US has been exposed to top level European club rugby in the past couple of seasons, the Premiership has a deal with NBC to show matches and a couple of games have been played over there. Not to a huge amount of fanfare, but then again, they’ve both featured Saracens, been played in New York and in Philadelphia, in the height of College Football season with a Penn State side that’s been competitive for the first time since, well, let’s not go there. The logistics of the operation present the next major challenge. The rumour mill seems to indicate that a team will be based in Washington DC, which at least places it in the time zone with the least differential. Luckily, there are a few precedents here to look at. The NFL has been bringing games to London for 10 years now. Initially, the sides making the trip here were given the following week as a bye, mainly as a sop to alleviate concerns over the travel. The situation has changed in recent seasons, with teams now given the choice of taking the bye week with many opting to delay it until later in the year. Perhaps the more pertinent case study though is that of the Toronto Wolfpack, who last season became the first Transatlantic operatives in the “other” rugby code. They started in the lowest tier of the pro structure, were bolstered by sponsorship from an airline so as to cover costs of travel for themselves as well as opposition teams flying out. Games were scheduled such that they played 2 or 3 in a row in the UK followed by up to 4 in a row in Toronto. Such was the squad they assembled, getting a read on how the travel affected them is moot, they pretty much swept everyone away in league play. Interestingly, teams that played in Toronto, went 8-1 in their subsequent matches so the travel didn’t appear to be too detrimental. It’s a little more tricky, given the convoluted way the European rugby calendar works to generate meaningful stats for the teams that have travelled to South Africa in the Pro14 this year. Some have stayed the full week, playing back to back Saturdays, others have then played Champions Cup matches the week after so it’s not really a like for like comparison. There doesn’t however appear to be a concrete correlation between travelling to SA and results the following week. One of the interesting notes from an interview Pro1 head, Martin Anayi, gave is that a “team must be competitive”. Interesting in the main because apart from a few results here and there, it is hard to make the case that any of the Italian sides in the league over the years has been competitive. Where he has a point though is in relation to the American market. It’s a cliché but Uncle Sam loves a winner, and whilst the expat/immigrant family dynamic may just see the “men from the old country” as reason enough to show interest, longer term the building of a foundation will rely on keeping the locals interested. There’s no shortage of big, powerful, athletic bodies in America. College Football is huge, producing thousands of athletes each year, only 250-300 get selected for the NFL through the draft, many barely staying there long enough to find the snack bar. US Rugby has searching for a way to tap into that player market for some time, being able to provide top class week on week opposition for a squad may well prove to be the draw that they need. American Football and rugby are as similar as they are dissimilar, but in both, there’s a need for big, body moving men alongside, sleeker, fleet of foot skill players with handling skills. Rugby hasn’t been an attractive proposition for those not good enough for the next level as domestically, rugby in the US is not of the highest standard. It is however growing, there's a vibrant amateur club competition, consisting of East and West leagues, further split geographically. Winners meet to crown a National Champion. The chance to pit your wits against seasoned internationals from some of the world’s top ranked nations ought to prove alluring, not only to those not making the cut in the NFL, or indeed the mooted reincarnation of the XFL, but also to some of those club players with ambition and the drive to go further. As of writing, the smoke signals seem to indicate the likelihood of one team being set up in Washington DC initially, possibly with one in Germany to keep the balance of the league intact. Which makes sense. South Africa is a proven rugby market, the two sides were extant organisations transplanting from a different league so bringing them both into the fold was a lower level of risk. Starting with one side in the Americas allows it a chance to develop without putting too many eggs in the basket. So, could it work? I believe, with the right approach, it can. There’s a template there to work from having seen how the League game handled Toronto, and with it being a Union led approach rather than a potential “fast buck” merchant, the will to grow the game and see it out rather than cut and run can only help. Will it work? There’s the $64,000 question. There will be a certain novelty value to it, but, given time (and it will take time) it should. If the respective Unions can get of their own way.
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