Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Test Rugby - worth waiting for

One of the reasons I prefer writing about Leinster & Ireland rugby is that when I talk about it out loud, the American accent I have never shaken despite almost 40 years of calling Ireland my home acts as a barrier to those who don't really know me.

Many is the time I have been harping on some egg-chasing topic to someone when I can see by their face that no matter how well I'm expressing myself, they're wondering if I'm fully aware that rugby players aren't allowed to pass the ball forward.

Still, my knowledge of American sports does give me a decent insight into the major differences between how things are done either side of "the pond", and never more so were these differences laid bare than at Soldier Field last weekend when the USA got hammered by the Aussies...er, I mean, the All Blacks in a much-publicized one-off test outside the traditional Test window.

Now I know people were rolling in the aisles at the US commentary and although I didn't get to see the match I can see how it would have been entertaining - though of course rugby is the REAL beautiful game, its complex laws would make it tough enough to sell to the American public as it is without the home side getting their red white and blue asses handed to them in the process.

But for me the hardest thing to sell to Americans will not be the actual sport itself, rather the entire concept of 15-man Test rugby itself.

In American sports, if you are born in, let's say Boston, and you show in high school that you are an extremely talented quarterback in "gridiron" football, the chances are you will one day play in the NFL, the highest level of the sport.  You may not play for the New England Patriots as Tom Brady's agent might have something to say about it, but there are as many as 31 other mega-rich franchises and if you're good enough there will be a lot of competition for your signature.

In rugby, it's not quite so simple.  Even here in Ireland, where we have a much smaller player pool than the other top nations in the world, showing immense talent at a particular position at school does in no way guarantee you Test caps.

Up to this year of course the biggest "bottleneck" position for Ireland has been at 13, but the same also applies elsewhere around the park, particularly on the wing.  Of course the opposite can also apply whereby there are shortages, and if you need to know how much THAT can turn your life upside down, just ask Michael Bent.  But even his story helps illustrate just how infuriating Test rugby can be.

Now when I say "infuriating", you know I mean that in a good way, right?  Because that's why those of us who have grown up with it love it so much.  But having said that, I can see how it would be hard to sell the game to Americans.

It's 20 years since the soccer World Cup was staged in the USA and it's only now that Major League Soccer has teams that can pull in crowds in the tens of thousands (the vast majority of MLS clubs pull in 5-figure crowds this weather).  

If rugby is to achieve anything close to that success, the IRB will need to have something close to that level of patience; building a fan base that will not only learn all the rules but also appreciate why the tonkings by the All Blacks will keep happening for a long, long time.

Of course as with most walks of life, there are short-cuts.  If any country was made to make the most out of the "residency rule" it would be the USA - if a player from one of the SANZAR nations knows he has little chance of making test level at home at his preferred position and doesn't want to switch, the notion of spending 3 years in the States to qualify would be a pretty easy sell...once of course there was a decent level of rugby to be played there in that time.

Now...the idea of success down the line for rugby in the USA leads me to another question I am frequently asked...when the Eagles play Ireland, who do I cheer for?  Hopefully if you have read this blog over the past 6+ years you will know the answer to that (clue - check the change in colour scheme ahead of the November Internationals).

And if the game were to really take off over there, Ireland could be the very country to suffer because once the popularity barrier is broken, they do of course have a limitless amount of resources at their disposal (money, people, money, logistics, good weather, and did I say money?) to easily get past us in the rankings, even if they never do catch up to the top three.

But that's a risk I'd be prepared to take, not because I'm American by birth, rather because I'm all for promoting the game in the so-called "Tier Two" nations in the hope that our version of the World Cup will become a competition that actually has  more than a handful of meaningful matches ahead of the quarterfinals.

As much as I love Test rugby, nothing is perfect and if the game can be improved beyond the Six Nations & SANZAR teams, surely it can get even better.

OK enough of these inane ramblings...we're going to be posting every day between now and the November internationals - tomorrow you'll hear from our "Eye Spy" secret agent who will be looking at the Springboks, Thursday I'll look at Ireland's expectations for the Guinness Series, then on Friday it's time for a preview of Saturday's big match at the Aviva.

Stay tuned!   #COYBIG  JLP


Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019