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.
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.
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…
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.
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.