US rugby celebrates start of a new Pro league

Mils Muliaina, who won 100 caps for New Zealand.Picture: AFP/Getty.
Mils Muliaina, who won 100 caps for New Zealand.Picture: AFP/Getty.
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Next Sunday afternoon at 4pm Pacific Standard Time a little piece of rugby history will be made. The first match of a brand new USA pro-league will kick off when Sacramento face San Francisco on Bonney Field. The venture has the blessing of both World Rugby and USA Rugby, although it is entirely independent of either governing body. There are only five teams competing in the league – Denver, Ohio and San Diego in addition to the two above – but for US rugby this may just be the acorn from which a rugby oak emerges.

The money man is Doug Schoninger, who worked in the financing of stadiums but boasts no background in rugby. The man in charge of the rugby is a Scot, Steve Lewis, who has been steeped in the game since growing up in Glasgow and whose resume is a good deal more exotic than most.

After turning out for West of Scotland alongside the likes of Matt Duncan, Gerry McGuinness and a young Gordon Bulloch, Lewis emigrated to the US in the early 1990s. He has coached a wide variety of teams around the world from the West Point Ladies, the Beit Jala Lions (in Palestine), Nigeria’s national team, Vail Rugby, Old Blue and the New York City Sevens side that won the plate final at Twickenham in 2013. Lewis was named the USA Coach of the Year in 2014.

As rugby director of the new league it is his task to populate those five teams with the best players money can buy: well, the best players that $35,000 can buy. And if that doesn’t sound like a king’s ransom it was enough to tempt fullback Mils Muliaina and his 100 All Black caps to play a 12-match season that stretches just three and a half months (17 April – 31 July). The league kicks off when the American Football season is over and before the baseball has become interesting.

“This is a single-entity league,” Lewis says via video link from the US, “so everything is owned by one guy (Schoninger) and everyone, players and coaches and physios, is centrally contracted. It’s my job to try and ensure that the five teams are all roughly equal in quality.

“Doug [Schoniger] had the go-ahead last season but he waited until now, after last year’s Rugby World Cup, after the recent American Championship (also known as the American Six Nations) which has just finished and before the 2016 Olympics which are hugely important for us. If the Eagles Sevens team medal in Rio then this league will take off.”

In much the same way, he could have added, that Major League Soccer (MLS) was given a shot in the arm by America’s World Cup campaign in Brazil two years ago when they qualified for the last 16.

“There are three levels of contract with about 40 tier-one players getting $35,000, perhaps 80 guys in tier two on $20,000 and the remainder of the players will be locals who are on a match fee deal only,” adds Lewis. “Most of the players involved won’t have been in a professional environment so I am trying to get a few older, more experienced heads in each team to set standards for the others to follow both on and off the field.

“We looked at the number of players we had available and we reckoned that we could fill maybe six teams but it turned out to be just five. We are looking to expand, especially into the North East corridor that links Washington with Boston, but we are venue dependent and the latest World Rugby ruling, regulation 22, has hurt us.”

Lewis explains that almost every rugby match on the east coast takes place on an artificial surface but Regulation 22 tightens the guidelines on what artificial surfaces can and can’t be used. World Rugby and USA rugby may lack the resources to check every field hosting amateur rugby but they are rigorous in enforcing the rules in the professional game and, anyway, Lewis was up against the clock.

The Scot was only appointed last November since when he has had to set up five teams, organise various venues, search out and sign up more than 100 players from all corners: little wonder he looks weary.

There are no Scots involved in this, the first year, but one ex-international applied for a coaching post, several players are interested and it may yet happen because there is a shortage of scrum-halves in one team. Otherwise there is the usual collection of Australians, South Africans and New Zealanders, plus one man from Chile, although the majority of players are obviously north American, with 54 of the contracted players being full internationals in one form of the game or another.

Argentina has already made huge strides inside the Rugby Championship, Japan now boasts a Super Rugby franchise and if this league captures the imagination then another of Scotland’s traditional rivals will get a big boost, especially if it gives college American football players an outlet. Lewis laughs off the “sleeping giant” as a cliché, which is perhaps to be expected, but he treats the concept of “crossover athletes” with much the same contempt, which is not.

“Look,” he says with the air of someone who has made this point more times than he wants to, “the whole crossover athlete is a unicorn, it doesn’t exit. You can’t turn an American footballer into a rugby player in less than two years. That is how long it took Carlin Isles and even then he is only a sevens player.”

But Nate Ebner famously won the Super Bowl with the New England Patriots and he is now trying out for the USA Sevens team in time for Rio?

“And I doubt he’ll make it,” Lewis replies before adding: “Anyway he was a rugby player in his youth. He played for the Eagles at U20 level. He grew up playing rugby.”

Timing is all and the timing might just be right. Rugby is America’s fastest-growing sport (+ 81 per cent 2008-13)* at exactly the time when numbers playing American football are in decline (- 21 per cent, same period)* for a variety of reasons. The report in question did not speculate as to why but one article in the USA underlined the safety issue, seemingly unaware that rugby is more dangerous than American football rather than less so.

One reason may be that rugby’s traditional ethics of respect and humility strike a ready chord in much of an American society that is sick of the excesses of their current sports stars. The new league is starting small by design, in the hope of growing organically rather than imposing a huge structure (with huge costs) on to a bemused public. Lewis insists that the teams only need to attract between 3-7,000 fans through the gates for their plan to succeed, while emphasising that funding is in place for the next three years.

“The USA sports market is the biggest and the richest in the world,” says the Scot, “and we just need to attract a tiny sliver of that market to be successful.”

* Sport and Fitness Industry Association figures.