Friday, September 7, 2007

Bringing rugby to the US

I spent a great weekend in Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It’s a city I really didn’t know that well and it was there that we held the inaugural meeting of the USA Rugby Congress. We were in Leo Burnett’s beautiful art deco building at 35 West Wacker Drive. On 13 September 2006, the USA Rugby Congress voted itself out of governance for the national game and elected a nine-man Board with me as Chairman. Helped by stalwarts like Bob Latham, Bill Middleton, Vic Hilarov, Jen Joyce, Dave Hodges, Paul Tsuchiya, Mike Mahan and Tom Wacker, we got to work. We have met five times since September of last year.

It was great fun to spend a day in Chicago with the people from USA Rugby who do the hard yards. These are the men and women, administrators, coaches and international athletes that have been brought together by the unbreakable lineage, or whakapapa as the Maori call it, of rugby. It was a room packed full of passion. We kicked off with an inspirational video showing how many rugby skills are already incorporated in mainstream American sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer and hockey. Our message is that it is only rugby that brings them all together. Only rugby has an international fraternity for life. Only rugby is a game that is available for everyone; all genders, all shapes, all sizes.

We then went on to share the Purpose of USA Rugby, starting with our Inspirational Dream of inspiring America to fall in love with the game. We also went through our Beliefs, Spirit and Key Challenges. The USA Rugby Congress played a fantastic role in contributing to and improving the Beliefs, in particular. 2007 has been a record year for US Rugby in terms of cash, revenue, profit and investment. Brilliant new sponsors such as Sony, Setanta and Guinness have been brought on board. All three of our top teams (Eagles, Womens', and 7’s side) are improving in terms of performance and our youth teams are also moving up the rankings’ ladder. Thanks to superb leadership from our newly appointed CEO and President of Rugby Operations, Nigel Melville. Nigel is ex-captain of England, ex-Director of Rugby at Wasps and has relocated to Boulder, Colorado. This is a guy who has really got his arms around all constituents of the game here.

Then to top it off, we qualified for Rugby World Cup '07, and Sunday saw a historic match-up with the 2006 Heineken Cup European Champions – Munster. Leading 6–nil at half-time, we ran out of steam against the experienced Munster pros and lost 10-6. But it was a great day for USA Rugby and 8,600 spectators turned up for it at Toyota Park, home of the Chicago Fire. I can tell you we’ve come a long way under ex-All Black selector Peter Thorburn, and we have the capability to surprise people in next month’s World Cup. Building bridges with Munster has been an important part of our strategy given the passionate following, particularly amongst the Irish Diaspora in the US.

Along with the fans, the local Mayor turned up and the Minister of State from Ireland came over for the game. There were also a bunch of key sponsors. This kind of interest, along with lots of kids getting involved, will provide the platform for accelerated growth in 2008 when we take the first step towards professionalism. For us to qualify for the Rugby World Cup in 2011, we’re probably going to have to beat the likes of Canada, Fiji and Tonga in the qualifying rounds if, as it looks likely, the number of qualifiers is reduced from 20 to 16. We’ll have to turn a hard core of players professional in 2008, which will in turn mean significantly increased revenue generation and funding. The world needs the US to become a playing and commercial force in rugby. Last weekend was a pretty good coming out party.