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 curiosity and 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.

6 COMMENTS

  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.

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