It is a frequently discussed subject in the international rugby community. The question always seems to be when, not if, the sleeping giant will finally awaken.

But having personally experienced the rugby scene in the land of the free, I believe the chains aren’t ready to come off anytime soon.

Having grown up playing rugby in New Zealand, and then having the chance to coach one of the top university teams in the US, I have had a unique insight into why the US continues to fall short of their own expectations on the international stage year after year. And it starts at the grassroots level.

Alternative sport

In the US, rugby is regarded as an ‘alternative‘ sport. And when you bear witness to the exposure and popularity of professional sports there such as (American) football, basketball and baseball, you can see why. Not only are these sports ingrained in their culture and tradition, but it is often seen as a legitimate avenue to become a professional sportsperson. Young talent is funnelled into these sports and rugby barely gets a look in.

Problem #1

And this is problem #1. Culture and tradition. When you aren’t living and breathing rugby when you’re a kid – watching the All Blacks on TV, playing touch rugby at lunchtime and coming home with a face full of mud every weekend – then your skill set will naturally be underdeveloped.

Many rugby players that you come across in the US will have a background in football. Often they adopt rugby in their college years or late into their high school years. The issue I’ve found is that football skills are seldom transferable to rugby. In fact, sometimes the football skills even hinder rugby skill development. Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly still raw young rugby talent out there in the US; I’ve seen it and I’ve coached it. But this leads to…

USA Rugby was very strong in the 20s. Can they get back to that level?
USA Rugby was very strong in the 20s. Can they get back to that level?
Photo: Unknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Problem #2

Problem #2. Inadequate coaching. The vast majority of rugby coaches in the US give their time voluntarily and this must be appreciated. However, there needs to be serious investment and a major focus on upskilling these coaches. At all levels of the game.

The US would do well to bring in more top advisors from places such as New Zealand to:

  • Lead early talent identification and create player developmental pathways.
  • Hold mentorship programs, workshops, seminars for existing coaches.

I believe the coaches are motivated for self-improvement but unfortunately lack the resources to do so.

The sevens program is working well. Can it be translated to fifteens?
The sevens program is working well. Can it be translated to fifteens?
Problem #3

And finally, problem #3. Lack of competition. In New Zealand, the secondary school system is an integral part of the developmental pathway. The competition is so high across the board that youngsters apply pressure to themselves and their teams to perform and, subsequently, improve week in and week out.

Not so in the US. Many scorelines are lopsided and there are usually one or two teams in the entire competition that dominates all the other teams. The US is also such a large landmass that teams have to travel for hours and hours, and often fly to the other side of the country, to find good competition.

I am proud to have contributed to the development of rugby in the US and I am confident that one day USA Rugby can indeed become a tier 1 rugby nation once again. But it’s not likely to be in this generation.

Author: Terry Han

I grew up in New Zealand playing every sport under the sun but my passion is with rugby. I have since developed a keen eye for coaching and analysis. I am a student of the game; taking every opportunity to learn from high performance coaches. I have previously coached in the USA and now ply my trade in Canada.


  1. This is a bit of a perennial question I feel. Everyone seems to be so eager for the US to be a great rugby power. It’s really good to hear a bit of insider knowledge from yourself Terry.
    Thinking about that background picture of the team from 1991, I bet today’s US national team would absolutely destroy them. When you think about all of their players that they have playing in professional leagues across the world today, they have improved massively. The thing is that every other international team has also improved loads since the dawn of professionalism. So they’re still not a world force.
    There is more youth rugby these days and (judging from the big crowds in Chicago for the international games there) there is much more awareness of rugby in the states these days. Once those kids grow up there could (and should) be a moment where they get a huge international result at the world cup, which really makes rugby catch fire. But as you said Terry, that may not happen for a while.

  2. I personally think it’s all about how big the business can be compared to the other typical USA sporta, even Soccer has not the audience of baseball basketball and american football, so you explain the american result in soccer

    It’s not only about money though, the future athlete has many paths to follow and obviously Will go after the one He Likes the most, how much is rugby famous among teenagers?, or the one he can pull more money from, the economical issue said before

    Agree they are not even close i guess

  3. My son is 9 and has stared playing under 10s for a local club. It’s obvious there’s a big difference in the level of organization between rugby and soccer, baseball, etc. We live in LA, and in spite of vast $$$ resources there’s a large disparity, so I can only imagine what it’s like in rural areas. However, the game has grown a lot in 5 years, and lots of parents are looking for alternative sports for their kids because it’s so competitive here. I’m hopeful that rugby will keep growing as a result.

  4. Terry, Your analysis and conclusion are spot on. However I may be a bit more positive about certain American football skills that are transferable to rugby. I would further add that Olympic Rugby 7’s effort is currently adding confusion to the American public. That said, I believe that properly introduced Rugby 7’s can be the quickest approach to educating Americans to the game of rugby and utilizing the raw talents of American trained football athletes to develop a globally competitive team. An Olympic gold medal would accelerate the process. 7’s would be less expensive and simpler to coach as a new club sport in US high schools. Yes rugby has made some progress in the US but it is decades away from achieving cultural relevance.

  5. Don’t worry I’m here to make American rugby great again:

    Step 1: Introduce the sport in as many schools as possible. Create leagues in each of your states. Then towards end of the season one state hosts the top 8 teams across the country. They compete in play offs and one school is crowned the best in your country. Usually the young teams especially schools will attract a lot of spectators and people to rugby. And it can become a community thing as well slowly growing the game.

    Step 2: Then your unions can contract the good ones each union will contract roughly 20-30 really good young players. The create a league for for the u19 to u21 for these unions then this age group can compete against other unions across the country. Once these players get older than 21 the good ones should be contracted to top unions.

    Step 3: Have a professional or even semi professional competition for your unions. Where their senior teams play against each other to win a title (preferably a round robin format). This will give the young American players a goal to strive for to play rugby professionally. I’m sure some people in World Rugby would love to help. Also implement a central contracting model.

    Step 4: I know the US have money. Try attract top coaches to the US to coach your senior teams in this competition that will soon be created. And try train local coaches to become world class ones themselves.

    Step 5: Dont poach over seas players

    Step 6: try to get at least 12-13 test matches for your national team against either tier one or tier 2 nations each year.

    This will be a good base to start. slowly give my plan 10-15 years the US will be escaping teir 1 and entering tier 1 and the talent and good coaches can even get them to top 8 in the world.

    • Love the enthusiasm but, uh, I think this really underscores a ton of things

      1. Introducing into schools would be great. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as you think. Texas Rugby Union created a plan that meets all of Texas’ requirements for curriculum. Basically, phys ed teachers need to create a plan that meets something like at least 7 out of 10 requirements and TRU’s plan meets all 10. However, this is a state by state case and it can be difficult to get into them especially when there are already 5 other major sports that are trying to get into curriculum. As for the second part, it’s expensive to travel with 20+ kids. Flights can cost over $200 per person in addition to the chaperones and hotel accommodations. This can cost almost $10,000. That’s tough for even football teams.

      2. More U19 or U21 teams are good but most teams are run through high schools for U19 and colleges for U21, so that sorta complicates things a bit.

      3. There is a pro league – Major League Rugby. The inaugural season kicks off in April. Not surprised you didn’t know about it because it is new.

      4. The US has money but the Union does not. USA Rugby has been in the red for years and the top teams outside of the national team would either be the pro teams (which are new) or amateur clubs which have no money. Everyone treats the US like some magic place where you create a sports team and it sells out but this is far from the truth.

      5. I’ve never liked countries poaching overseas players but this does make our country better. Now that we have a pro league I’m sure there will be far more domestic players with only a couple of foreign players. Right now only about 3 or 4 players are “poached” while any other player that is foreign born just happen to be playing in the US.

      6. Definitely what USAR is trying to do. They play 5 matches in the ARC in February and then anywhere from 2-4 in June and November. They could definitely use more but unfortunately the Tier 1 countries tend to play against whoever they want.

      Even if all these things worked I don’t think 10-15 years makes sense. Again, love your enthusiasm and not trying to be a dick but it’s just unrealistic.

      • Dang, at least you’ve got your own competition.Good start I heard it is professional which is even better. Yes poaching overseas players makes your club teams stronger but that wont help the US national team. It just deny opportunities to american players which is detrimental to the national side.Have 3 or 4 max foreign players in the starting 15 in my opinion but dont go wild like france.

    • Konke,
      I like your ideas but I disagree with step two & five.

      #Refuting step 2
      You see, the problem of incorporating the major rugby nations junior developments of having academies geared specifically for 19 or 21 year olds is that it may cause confusion on an cultural mindset deeply ingrained on how American student athletes understands the pathways to get into top leagues or reach the national team. For example, American students know that if they want to play in the NFL or NBA, they must graduate from high school and attend a college that has the best sports program. Not only does this motivates them to achieve their goals, but gives them this thrill of attending university and loyalty to that school . It’s the reason why most Americans watch college football then the NFL cause of the school they went to. As a result, I feel having this under 20’s development teams, where in NZ they only play like 4 times a year compared to the US college football & rugby system where they are playing three times more per year for three years, is going to kill the growth of rugby at its roots in both high school and college level. We must not destroy what is sacred to a country, and in America, college sports is seen as sacred. On the recent polls of the list of viewers after the College Championship between Alabama vs Georgia Tech, ESPN recorded having 28.4 million viewers. So the question you should ask yourself, are willing to fight against the interests of 28.4 million people by replacing a college format that has already works well for them compared to a foreign concept that collides with their culture?

      #Refuting step 5
      If you look at other countries new to rugby like Romania, recruiting foreign players has not only improved their national teams performance, but has also helped their leagues getting major sponsors.

      In conclusion, you must realize that America is not LIKE a world of its own, it actually IS. The population is more then 60 times more then New Zealand’s population and there’s hardly a single county that has a club that’s fully professional like a Super Rugby team, so we need to be patient and also understand the culture of sports in the U.S.

      I forgot to mentioned. President Donald Trump attended the 2017/2018 College Championship finals. Tell me of a rugby country where a government official attended it’s under 20’s club development finals?….Hope you now understand how sacred college sports is in America


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