USA Sevens brings world's finest to Vegas – but can US rugby live with the best?
“Imagine what it’s going to be like in 2020 if we’ve got some kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn, playing in the in Tokyo.”
In his spare office in New York City, on 9th and West 45th, trophies stacked with bags of rugby balls on the metal shelves behind him, Mark Griffin smiles and takes a sip of water. Griffin is the , an inner-city nonprofit which is now joint-operator of America’s first community Olympic development programme (CODP) for rugby union. The sport returns to the Games in Rio this summer but Griffin is looking four years ahead.
In Las Vegas, meanwhile, the best men’s teams in the world are looking only to the next three days, in which they will contest .
The big teams are attacking Olympic year in earnest: New Zealand will field , while is in South Africa’s squad.
The US Eagles do not have such superstars, though they do have , and , crossovers from football who have made themselves increasingly well known. In Vegas, they will be contenders for a knockout place, for a tournament win, for points on the HSBC World Series.
In this Olympic year, though, the Eagles’ job extends beyond the field of play. They must begin to win the attention of the American sporting public – both TV viewers and, perhaps more importantly, striving young athletes.
That is where Griffin and others come in. When it comes to the effect the Games can have on American youth rugby, most such operators agree with , a former Eagles prop turned entrepreneur who will on Friday stage an awareness-raising event at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas, under the title “”.
“Rugby is ,” James says, down the phone from San Francisco, citing a familiar statistic from the which says participation in US youth rugby grew by 81.6% from 2008 to 2013.
James then cites a familiar view in rugby, bolstered by the same survey finding that in the same period youth participation in tackle football fell by 21%: “We need to seize that Olympic moment with parents who maybe don’t want their kids playing football.”
Rugby, it should be said, . But James continues: “Just the fact that rugby is included is a game-changer. The US public are very keen on the Olympics, it brings exposure, funding from the government and other bodies too. This is the very tip of the iceberg for what that’s going to mean.”
Griffin, after on the cracked asphalt of Queens and Manhattan now taking a big step through the CODP, puts the same point another way.
“[Olympic inclusion] makes the stakes so much bigger than ever. When you look at viewing figures on NBC for US rugby events recently, maybe a million watch every time. [Approximately] forty million people watch the Olympics in the US [on NBC Sports Network nightly]. This year, many of them will see some rugby sevens. For me, that makes for a massive ‘so what?’”
Griffin smiles, and spreads his hands.
“I mean that positively. So what do we, in American rugby, make of this opportunity?”
In his case, he will work with the official to provide a pathway from inner-city, school or rugby club to elite Olympic competition.
Rugby now has a foothold in America. Or, to stay with the dubious moutaineering analogies, potentially frightening exposure. The performance of the Eagles’ men’s and women’s teams in Rio will help determine how fast and safe the climb can be.
So will the many stakeholders of American rugby. In terms of developing the men and women who will play in Tokyo and beyond, governing body USA Rugby supervises, from Colorado, as a number of organisations seek out talent. There is also and , and more. The English are interested too: Premiership Rugby recently launched its programme, also in New York.
In Play Rugby USA’s case, though, four young women who discovered the game with the programme will this weekend represent in the , a huge club, high school and college event that runs alongside the international tournament. None of the New York girls had seen a rugby ball till relatively recently; one will go on to play for the in Vancouver next week.
“We’re at the forefront of girls’ rugby,” Griffin says, “and we equally promote it with the boys. It’s about equal opportunity, although our high-school program is now 51% girls.”
James adds: “Olympic inclusion is because with Title IX, colleges are looking for women’s sports. This is a massive opportunity for rugby.”
That sense of opportunity is not confined to the Olympics: in 2018 the men’s and women’s World Cup Sevens and in the full 15-a-side version of the game, , a five-team professional league, is due to kick off next month.
But most observers agree: come , if the American men and women are on the podium, the game at home will receive a tremendous boost. A gold medal may be, in Griffin’s words, “Miracle on Ice sort of stuff”. But if nothing else, his reference to shows the stakes for which American rugby is playing.