WELLINGTON (Reuters) - A burgeoning collegiate rugby competition and adoption of the ‘Argentine model’ could help the United States improve their standing in world rugby, according to coach Eddie O’Sullivan.
“I was working for the Eagles back in the ‘90s and went back to Ireland after the 1999 World Cup,” O’Sullivan told Reuters on his whistlestop visit to New Zealand to inspect training and accommodation facilities for his team at next year’s World Cup.
“In the 10 years I was away from the game in America it certainly changed for the better and it’s got stonger and has a better structure.
“The (big) difference between the ‘90s and now is that the collegiate programs are getting much better, there are more of them (and) a lot of those players play their first game of rugby at college. They may have been (American) football players at high school but begin to play rugby in college.
“So those collegiate programs are very, very important (because) a lot of those players come out of the collegiate program and go straight into the Eagles.”
Irishman O’Sullivan added the collegiate system, was “something Americans understood”, which was creating more interest in the sport, with a recent collegiate rugby 7s tournament being broadcast live by NBC.
“That got a huge reaction because it’s easy to sell collegiately.
“Teams like Cal-Berkeley, Utah, Notre Dame — they’re easy to sell to the American public because they’re marquee colleges.
“Whereas trying to sell a club to America is tough — no-one knows about clubs, but they all understand the collegiate system.”
The United States are currently ranked 15th in the world and qualified for the World Cup after beating Uruguay over two legs. Their appearance in New Zealand will be their sixth World Cup.
O’Sullivan said USA Rugby was taking a grassroots approach to growing the game with development programs in high schools and at junior level “but there will be a bit of time before that pays off”, and the game was also still concentrated in areas that had a rugby tradition.
“It’s like pushing a rock up a hill. Sometimes it’s two steps forward then it rolls back a step,” he said.
“The big difficulty is financial, we don’t have a professional game ... (even) Russia has a professional league ... so if we could achieve that it would be a huge step forward but we don’t have the money for that.”
O’Sullivan expected his World Cup squad to be split evenly between the domestically based amateur and internationally-based professional players and the short-term goal was to adopt the model used by Argentine rugby officials and attempt to get more of their players professional contracts overseas.
“Our route forward at the moment is to get our players overseas and follow the model Argentina used,” he said before adding the union had put player profiles and highlight reels on the video sharing website youtube in order to market them.
“It’s a hard sell at the moment, because most teams in Europe will look to the southern hemisphere for a finished product rather than look to American player.
“But we are working hard to change that.”
Editing by Justin Palmer