All Blacks in Chicago and the politics of USA Rugby

On Saturday November 1 something remarkable happened – one of America’s most iconic NFL football stadiums, Soldier Field in Chicago – home of the Chicago Bears, hosted the first game between the USA Eagles and the All Blacks in over 30 years in front of a sellout crowd of 62,000 AND the game was broadcast live on NBC, one of America’s big three broadcast TV networks (not on NBC Sport – one of its subsidiary channels only seen on cable). This was unprecedented exposure for rugby here in the US. I was caught completely off guard by the popularity of this event procrastinating getting tickets for only a few weeks only to hear it had sold out! What was even more remarkable was, according to expat mates at the game, the bulk of the crowd were Americans.

Since 2006 I have been an assistant coach of a High School rugby team and I referee Union 15s and 7s plus Touch rugby. I knew something big was brewing when 14 year old boys on our team asked about the game and asked me whether I’d ever seen the All Blacks play. As I recounted the many test matches I’ve watched the ABs play at Lancaster Park, Carisbrook and Eden Park, the new boys this season all gathered around and peppered me with questions about the men in black and rugby in NZ. These are boys who live and breathe football, most of them play it and attend college and NFL games regularly, are enrolled in numerous fantasy football teams and watch gridiron on TV as much as parents will allow. And yet despite that, they are in sheer awe of the All Blacks and ripple with adolescent excitement at the prospect of their first game of rugby. I have probably coached several hundred boys since moving here and 2/3rds of them also played football (the two seasons don’t overlap – they play high school football August to November and rugby January to May). A good number of these boys were starting Varsity players (equivalent of the 1st XV)  for top high school programmes here in Arizona. And yet once they began to play rugby, there was not a one of them who did not prefer rugby to football despite still loving football and some even managing college scholarships. I call it the rugby drug – a few hits and these boys get addicted. They get infinitely more game time than football’s large squads, they all get to touch the ball as opposed to just the quarterbacks and receivers in football, rugby is player managed/football is coach managed – teenagers love the independence to make their own plays in real time as a rugby game unfolds and the clincher, and any current and former rugby players will nod their heads in agreement, is the post-game adrenaline high is so much bigger and lasts longer with rugby because they are on the field exerting themselves aggressively for so much longer!

I’m sure you are wondering that, knowing all this, why the US, with all its vast wealth and its tens of millions of athletic kids (and believe me I still marvel at the massive factory of fast, physical and genetically gifted athletes here) is still only able to produce a team that an All Black B team can put almost 70 points on and trust me, had the field been the regulation 50m width (not the 43m forced by the narrower gridiron configuration), the ABs might’ve nudged the ton. The answer can be summed up in one word – politics.

Don’t get me wrong – the game on Saturday will do much good for the game here and it was fantastic that the NZRFU agreed to do it. The Blacks clearly had a great time, they were very gracious in victory and it was a great warm up for Dan Carter and a stunning reminder of Sonny Bill Williams’ supreme talent that, rusty from his post league transition, he came within one forward pass of a hat trick of tries. But this was a top down exercise born of pure financial expediency. The NZRFU made a very tidy profit to compensate for its dwindling gate sales in NZ’s major city stadiums, NBC got to preview rugby to its vast US Olympics audience so it had its eyes firmly on 7’s at the Rio Olympics rather than grassroots rugby in the US and AIG, major All Black sponsors based in New York, got to get its name in front of a large prime time US network audience.

Rugby administration in the US is dominated by men who grew up playing what passes for club rugby here. The pattern is repeated cross all major and medium cities across America. For decades, most Americans discovered rugby as adults albeit young adults picked up from: a high school football coach who spent a stint in the UK in the military and played rugby, a Canadian work mate who played rugby there before emigrating (where the game has a more solid footing); some worked for a period in rugby playing countries or in locations where Kiwi, Aussie, South African and English expats congregate and discovered rugby there, still more are expats themselves wanting to keep playing the game and others still discovered it from expat work mates in the US. The bottom line was and is the same – Men’s rugby clubs typically cover a large age range of 19 to 40’s and include fit and capable athletes with overweight and out of shape older men in it for the boozing and socializing. A few promising players would travel overseas to play rugby in heartland countries but for some reason the generation that now administers the game in the US, they mostly visited the northern European countries and so learned that style of playing and refereeing.

The biggest growth of the game in the US in recent years has come from college rugby and it from those ranks that the US 7’s and Eagles National team is usually chosen. The game is beginning to grow more rapidly at the high school level and so development squads of U19 players have also fed to the national level. But unfortunately the stultifying politics of USA rugby is dominated by men who really have no clue what top class rugby playing and administration looks like. This is manifest in a variety of ways summed up by my own experiences and observations:

  •  When you come from NZ, you naturally draw on what you saw when you were growing up and knew as an adult about rugby in NZ – you are brimming with ideas and suggestions as to how to improve the game in the US because when you first arrive, you become immediately aware of the gaping holes in quality at every level (playing, coaching, reffing and administration). The Americans mostly don’t want to know about our experience. They don’t care where you are from and what you might know coming from the world’s best rugby playing nation – they are comfortable in their dysfunctional space and don’t want upstarts telling them what to do. This acts as an immediate dampener on getting involved with the administration of the sport. For one thing who will vote for you when they all elect their local mates who won’t (and can’t) point out their inadequacies. For that reason, I and other expats have concentrated on building a good programme with our local high school teams. Even then after helping build a programme that has won the AZ state championship 3 times on the trot, lost the 2014 US High School Nationals by only 5 points and ranks 5th nationwide, my fellow kiwi coaches and I are still largely ignored.
  • Sometimes opposing coaches ask us to only do old men’s uncontested scrums even when the players our boys are playing are normal size kids or, get this, to persuade our players to not tackle too hard!
  • I referee in the southern hemisphere style. My heroes are Jonathon Kaplan, Paddy O’Brian, Steve Walsh, Craig Joubert and Glen Jackson. I play the advantage aggressively (only half the refs here know how to properly play the advantage). I also try not to be whistle-happy and talk to players to avoid excessive penalties. Here lack of fitness and English style pedantic refereeing means lots of whistle blowing despite playing on mostly hard fast fields in dry weather. When reffing High School rugby, I am commentating the game a lot because you are almost coaching and reffing due to so many inexperienced players. One of my referee coaches criticized me for being too vocal and when I told him that’s how the Super 15 coaches ref, I was told not to follow them! For real!
  • When talented former NZ coach and administrator Dick Thorburn was appointed as Performance Manager of USA Rugby he didn’t last long and left frustrated over these very same issues. Whilst some of it is a lack of a budget to pay for talent from down under, some of it is the ‘we don’t need your help’ attitude. The sad thing is often here they don’t know what they don’t know. If you don’t even know the scope of your deficiencies then it’s hard to ask for the right help to overcome them.
  • One time a fellow Kiwi coach and I were assigned to coach the U19 AZ select side for a national tournament in Denver. We had the head of the AZ Rugby Union constantly interfering and telling us how to coach and do our job – a guy who’d never coached and only ever played the crappy Club rugby here. We could never choose the best players in the State and only took those players whose parents had enough money to pay for the trip so naturally we couldn’t perform as well.
  • This problem is replicated all over the US. Salty Thompson, a gritty former Irish International player from the 80’s, is the US U19 coach. He visits our team to watch for talent and we’ve had the odd boy chosen to play for the USA U19 team but again, he can’t pick the best team, only the players whose families can afford the cost of flying the kids to the training camps in Indianapolis. He has any number of big fast Polynesian boys born in the US who are real talent and would lift the game of the USA U19 team but he can’t get the few rich white men who sponsor such things to look beyond their usual comfort zone of white middle class boys.
  •  For years the State High School final was reffed by an aging white haired ref (who is a prominent ref coach here) who was a good ref in the day but just couldn’t keep up with the pace of a high school game and missed a lot plus he was grumpy and whistle-happy. Finally the High School rugby administrator had a ref mate of his from Colorado in town who agreed to ref the 2013 final. He was the best ref we’d ever had at our level as most of our games are reffed by shockingly bad refs (I can’t ref my own teams’ games). So for the 2014 final, a good mate of mine from the North Harbour union (who has reffed Men’s Div I and High School finals in Auckland) was visiting to watch his son who plays for a Utah college against ASU and I asked the local union if he could ref – he had all his credentials from NZ that showed he was experienced. They said no because it ruffled too many local feathers!

I could go on. Suffice it to say that it’s frustrating. We’re making progress where we can. We’ve built as good a programme as we can with the limited experience of boys not raised in a rugby culture. We bring boys up from NZ to go to school here and play on our team to help mentor our local players, we travel out of state to play teams in states where high school rugby is more developed and we have formed U14 and U12 teams to feed to us and get them started younger. And finally in the last year we have an energetic Aussie expat as the local union head who is also driving youth development hard and he’s managing to break through the flabby layers of useless attitudes and administration and make a difference. America could be a rugby El Dorado. The sheer number of amazing athletes here, even at the high school level, is staggering. One day hopefully USA Rugby will do what US Soccer did when they hired German super star soccer player and Manager Franz Beckenbauer to teach them how to build a world class football programme. That was 25 years ago and now the US women are now ranked No 1 and the Men No 22 in the world in soccer. It can be done. It’s exciting to be here and watch the game we love grow and be a small part of it but boy you sure come to hate the politics!

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