Two sevens wins over New Zealand, a professional league looming and the nation’s fastest growing team sport – the US now offers rugby the richest prize

At the Dubai Sevens last weekend, USA beat New Zealand twice. They finished third after losing contentiously to England but the salient fact remained: no Eagles side had ever beaten an All Blacks team in any form of the game. If Dubai had been the Olympic sevens in Rio next August, USA would have had bronze – the mighty New Zealanders, nothing at all.

Through the World Series and the coming Olympics, sevens is stoking growth in the global game. The US offers perhaps the most promising case – in sevens and XVs, rugby union is the fastest growing team sport.

In the full game, the Eagles struggled at the recent World Cup but a professional league is coming and the search for talent is on. The sevens squad’s crossovers – Carlin Isles (running back, sprinter), Perry Baker (wide receiver) and Zack Test (wide receiver) – and rugby-raised talents (Garrett Bender, Maka Unufe, Nate Augspurger) are blazing a promising trail.

Around the world, rugby has taken notice. Asked why his club were taking a Premiership game to New York, the London Irish chief executive, Bob Casey, says: “It’s the biggest sports city in the world.” For city, read country. Super Rugby may be on its way to Argentina and Japan but the US offers the richest prize.

From England, therefore, come London Irish and Saracens, the opposition at Red Bull Arena on 12 March and who have a partner club in Seattle. Super Rugby is dipping a toe or two in the water and the All Blacks and Wallabies have played in Chicago. Even the Rugby Football Union has invested in a for-profit company launched by its US equivalent.

The most concrete achievement, though, is Irish’s three-year deal in New York. High over Times Square, at the headquarters of the Legacy Agency, Casey said success would be “a cracking day out, a good game of rugby. I think anything over 15,000 would be great for year one,” he said, adding a sense of scale by discussing a trip to MetLife Stadium to see the New York Jets, sometime users of the Exiles’ training ground in London, play the Buffalo Bills in front of 70,000 more.

On the phone, Mark McCafferty, the chief executive of Premiership Rugby, said he hoped to see a lot more US games. “But I don’t like looking too far ahead. We’ve got to learn the lessons, of which I’m sure there will be many. I suspect we’d like to get the first match under our belts and then make the second one bigger and better.”

To those who know US rugby, McCafferty’s caution will seem wise. The country offers untold riches but in this gold rush the stakeholders are as many as the territory is huge.

From Alaska to Florida, there has long been a thriving grassroots game. Recently in New York, even as Casey landed at JFK, a professional league was announced. The plan is that from April 2016 five or six teams will take the field in “major metropolitan areas in the north-east, the Rocky Mountains and California”. The first two host cities are Sacramento and San Francisco, and in late November calls went out for players – domestic and a “limited number” of imports – and coaches. To identify US talent, NFL-style training “combines” are scheduled to be held.

USA Rugby, with its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, has sanctioned the new league. The company running it, Pro Rugby, operates independently from New York. Its founder and funder is Doug Schoninger, who made his fortune on Wall Street.

Schoninger is a convert, an affable New York Giants fan who came late to rugby but fell hard for it. Speaking of “sharing a vision” with Nigel Melville, USA Rugby’s English chief executive, he laments the NFL’s remoteness from everyday life. “Rugby is what America needs,” he says, “without question. This is the last unknown sport. It has a World Cup. It’s ethos-driven.”

Accordingly, the new league is seeking to bind with the roots of the US grassroots game. There are, however, competing interests – and not all of them are vocal fans of the project.

All this is going on without major media interest, in front of an audience served only by dogged bloggers
United World Sports is based in New York. It runs the USA Sevens in Las Vegas, the Collegiate Rugby Championship sevens in Philadelphia and the 15-a-side Varsity Cup, which is distinct from USA Rugby’s own college competition and is dominated by teams from California and Utah. In Manhattan there is also AIG, the insurance giant that sponsors USA Rugby’s grassroots programmes as well as the mighty All Blacks.

Then there is the US Olympic committee, with a Colorado HQ and a training centre near San Diego; the top amateur clubs, running Premiership competitions on either coast and in between; and burgeoning women’s and collegiate games. In Minnesota, the National Rugby Football League is still trying to convert football players.

It’s a rather dizzying prospect – therefore, as the Harlequins chief executive, David Ellis, told the Guardian, when considering US investment “you need a region, basically, because it’s just such a big market”. Hence his club’s focus on development work in the area around San Francisco, where may lurk the next Samu Manoa.

Yet, up there, there’s more. Like Pro Rugby, Quins will not fringe into Washington state, which is home to Seattle Saracens – who play in a Canadian league – and Atavus, a company run by the former Rugby World Cup general manager Ross Young that specialises in youth and college coaching.

he tackle from USA’s Carlin Isles in the third-fourth play-off at the Dubai Sevens. Photograph: Stephen Hindley/AP
Nobody said conquering the US would be easy – and among so many competing interests, dissenting voices can be heard. From inside the game come concerns over the rush to professional play in April. From outside has come a call for structural change forcefully voiced by Tony Ridnell, a former Eagles No8 turned businessman.

Dan Lyle is another former Eagles No8. Now the executive vice-president of United World Sports, he played for Bath and Leicester in the difficult first years of English pro rugby. Lyle warns that bringing professionalism to the US will require “greater camaraderie” and some “tough ploughing”.

“As American rugby enters what may be our professional era, some 20 years into the [world] game going pro,” Lyle says, “we believe USA Rugby should hold more stakeholder business meetings. Communication and collaboration will be the hallmarks to sustainability and greater growth.”

All this is going on without major media interest, in front of an audience served only by dogged bloggers. One night recently, therefore, at the Park Avenue offices of college sevens sponsor Penn Mutual, Schoninger communicated directly with some of his public. Illustratively, the response from the New York Rugby Business Network was appreciative, if with some pointed questions and a little muttering at the back.

McCafferty also acknowledged the difficulty of working in a huge country where no one completely controls the game. “London Irish v Saracens has been three years in the planning,” he says, “and we’ve had a couple of runs at it that haven’t quite worked out. We’ve looked at working with people that haven’t worked out but we think we have the right partners now. It’s not an easy landscape, the US, not the least part of which is that it’s such a big sports market, and then within rugby there do seem to be a number of different players. But I think USA Rugby is now starting to get a handle on that and to define a way forward for the sport.”

He then touched on the powerful effect the US can have on even the most grounded mind. “I think the sport of rugby is flattered by the interest a number of people in the US have shown and their faith that it can grow.”

After the Eagles’ two wins over New Zealand in Dubai, that faith will only burn brighter.