USA head coach Gary Gold chats to JON CARDINELLI about Major League Rugby and explains why a Super Rugby franchise could do the game in North America more harm than good.
Many have described Major League Rugby as a game-changer for the US. As someone who has been at the American rugby coalface since the start of 2018, do you agree with that statement?
These are exciting times for rugby in the States. The USA Eagles won the Americas Rugby Championship earlier this season. The Sevens World Cup will be staged in San Francisco in July. Major League Rugby commissioner Dean Howes [who was the chief executive at Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer] has put a sensible model together that will allow the local game to grow. There’s a lot of interest in MLR and already the tournament is set to expand from seven franchises to 10 in 2019. Things are certainly heading in the right direction.
Former Springbok captain Bob Skinstad has a stake in the San Diego franchise, while the Crusaders are involved with the Seattle team. Clearly, it’s not only the Americans who feel this tournament has potential.
That’s true, but it’s still early days. Before the start of the tournament, the franchises needed to make an application and show they had the fields and everything else that is required to run a professional rugby outfit. There is a salary cap of $350 000 [R4.3-million] per team, which is small. A few companies have invested in the franchises, like Bob’s asset management company from the UK. With his rugby background and marketing skills, he is very much involved over there. Next year, we could see more teams from Dallas, New York and Canada coming onboard. The salary cap might move up to around $400,000 [R4.9-million].
How have the fans responded to the new tournament?
The early rounds have been a resounding success. The games have been competitive. The powers that be have been smart in that they’ve taken the tournament to smaller stadiums that hold a maximum of 6,000 people. Those matches have sold out. They have a 5 000-seater in Seattle, and they’ve sold 3 500 season tickets. That’s a significant database of fans, and they’re locals.
How important is it for the tournament to appeal to local fans and to develop local players?
Massively important. Rugby is popular here in America, but it’s a big country. There’s never been anything for fans to cling to in the past. They haven’t had teams or a league to support. MLR is going to get things going in that respect. One can’t ignore the fact there are a lot of expats in the States, though. They are also going to get behind a team. You get a lot of Irish and English expats on the east coast, which at this stage doesn’t have a franchise in the tournament. There are a lot of South Africans, Australians and New Zealanders in cities like Boston, New York and Chicago [which are all expected to have franchises in future]. You saw what happened when more than 60 000 people watched Ireland beat the All Blacks in Chicago in 2016. There were a lot of expats in that crowd.
What structures have been put in place to grow the player pool and improve the overall standard of MLR?
Each franchise is going to have an academy and will work closely with schools and colleges in their region. There are a lot of American universities that play rugby, and at quite a good level. The talent is there. The franchises are going to develop those players and ultimately increase their own pool of players. Before you know it, there could be as many as 1 000 registered players knocking on the professional door in the US.
Are there a lot of South Africans in the American rugby system?
I know of at least 10 universities, even Ivy League schools like Yale, that offer rugby scholarships. I was at a game where Arkansas played Colorado State earlier this year and there were four or five South Africans involved. They have come to America to study and potentially qualify for the Eagles. Some move over here when their kids are very young. If I think about some of the South Africans in the USA team, Hanco Germishuys’ parents moved to Arkansas as far back as 2004. Ruben de Haas’ father, Pieter, played centre for Free State, Transvaal and Northern Transvaal. The De Haas family moved to the US when Ruben was in primary school.
Will the advent of MLR see more South Africans pursuing opportunities in the US?
It’s not going to be as easy as it was before, especially with Donald Trump in power and things like Brexit. The change in the World Rugby residency qualifications – now five years instead of three – might stem the flow of players. Coming to study here, especially if you don’t have a scholarship, is not a cheap exercise.
Why do you think kids in the US might opt for rugby over a ‘mainstream’ sport like American football?
I suppose it comes down to what you want from a sport. I visited Brigham Young University in Utah recently. The rugby coach had an interesting story to tell. He’s of Polynesian descent and grew up playing American football in the US. He told me about a conversation he had with some players after they made the switch from football to rugby. He asked one player what they enjoyed about football. The player said ‘tackling’. He admitted that he enjoyed ball-carrying too, but then pointed out that he couldn’t be a ball-carrier if he wasn’t on the offensive team. The coach told the player that rugby allows an individual to be involved in more than one aspect of play. That player loved tackling, but didn’t know that he could tackle and run with the ball over the course of a game. He didn’t know there was an option that would see him staying on the field and in a contest for up to 80 minutes.
They say making the switch from American football to rugby – and vice versa – requires a big shift in mindset.
Definitely, but let me begin by addressing the physical difference. You only have to watch the NFL to see that the players are terrific athletes who are unbelievably well conditioned. It may sound crazy, but those players are not well conditioned enough for rugby. They aren’t able to play 80 minutes or, to put it another way, compete in a game where there is 40 minutes of ball in play. There are periods of high intensity in football and the conditioning is geared towards that. In rugby, a player may make a big tackle and then get back up to make more contributions in the same movement. He will get back into the defensive line. He may make another tackle, force a turnover, make a pass, follow the ball-carrier, receive a pass and then sprint another 30 or 40m to score a try. Obviously that involves a different sort of conditioning and makes use of a wider range of skills.
So, getting used to that difference in approach and workload is the mental shift?
Yes. You may find a wide receiver who has a stepping game that is so good he could step a pig in a passage. However, more defenders are going to come after him in a rugby game. He’s not going to have anyone blocking for him, as is the case in football. Getting used to that is the key. There is a lot of work to do with younger players who are crossing over.
How will MRL boost the US national side in the short and long term?
I’ve got a strong relationship with all seven coaches and I’m sharing the programme I use for the USA Eagles. There is a drive to improve the level of the game here. However, it will be some time before the national team reaps the benefits of this new league. The US is not like New Zealand, England or Ireland, where the top players stay in the country. Of the Eagles’ squad, only 40% of the players play in the US. The rest are competing in tournaments like the Currie Cup, New Zealand Cup, Top 14, Pro D2 in France, and the English Premiership. Joe Taufete’e [Worcester], AJ McGinty [Sale] and Samu Manoa [Toulon] are just some of the players who are plying their trade abroad. In one sense, it’s good to see them getting experience at a high level. Ideally, however, you’d want them all to be playing in the US.
How long will it be before the sleeping giant – as many have described USA rugby – wakes and becomes a force on the Test stage?
In time that giant may be moving with power and speed. At this stage, it’s still trying to wake up. This MLR tournament is a step in the right direction and there is a good plan in place. The Americans will need to be patient for this plan to work, though.
Do you have any idea of when we may see a significant change?
It’s going to take at least another World Cup cycle until the US reaps the benefits of these new structures and MLR. The Eagles must set their sights on qualifying for the 2023 tournament in France and winning a couple of pool games [Gold’s contract runs until the end of 2019]. They’re also hoping the 2027 World Cup will be staged in the US. That would be a game-changer. If it doesn’t happen, the plan could lose momentum.
Why do you think a successful bid for the 2027 World Cup is so crucial?
MLR will have an impact in the long run. If we’re looking at the impact before the 2019 World Cup, obviously it won’t make that much difference. It’s not Super Rugby or the Premiership. Something big has to happen for the tournament to take off. At the moment there are three TV companies – CBS, ESPN, and AT&T on the mobile platform – covering MLR. They’re covering it because they see the potential. They’re not necessarily putting a lot of money behind the idea. If something big were to happen, however, like the US hosting the 2027 World Cup, the big TV companies may decide that it’s worth getting the TV rights. And when that happens, the salary cap may head north of $500,000 [R6.2-million]. That’s not going to improve the quality overnight, but it will attract the top American players in Europe. They will want to come back.
Sanzaar officials have spoken about tapping into the American market before. In May, there were reports of a plan to base a franchise in the US in an expanded Super Rugby tournament post-2020. Would this move benefit the game in the country?
If you had asked me that seven months ago, before the launch of MLR, I would have said yes. Now everybody is trying to get their foot in the US door, from the Pro14 to Sanzaar. My understanding is that the Americans have a clear plan, which involves developing their own league. They don’t want anyone else to compromise that. That may sound weird. Why wouldn’t you want a Super Rugby team based here? The point is you want to strive towards a sustainable model.
So you’re saying that basing a Super Rugby franchise in the US at this stage may do more harm than good?
A more important question is: what is the Holy Grail for USA Rugby? For me, it’s this: USA Rugby, in conjunction with MLR, is able to centrally contract and fund all the top guys playing in the US. That’s the ultimate. You can’t do that if there are other tournaments in the equation. If you bring a Pro14 or a Super Rugby team here, suddenly there are completely different competitions pulling players in all directions. American players sign for a Super Rugby or a Pro14 team, and they have commitments that may clash with their national contract at the Eagles. Also, if there is a Super Rugby franchise based in Boston, for example, how many American players will be involved? You will get a lot of expats wanting to play in that team, who want to be part of Super Rugby. Where is that going to leave the US and the quality of rugby in this country? I think the powers that be need to back the plan and be patient with MLR. One only needs to look at how well Major League Soccer has done. If the crowds are averaging between 10,000 and 12,000 in a few years’ time, that is up there with some clubs in the Premiership. That is a sustainable game.
Do you think USA Rugby will resist the temptation to join Super Rugby sooner rather than later?
I find myself in an interesting position. In the past, when the expansion and America’s inclusion was spoken about, I was coaching Super Rugby teams in South Africa. Now I’m on the other side of the argument. I’m getting messages from all sorts of people. Everybody wants to be involved with a team based in the US. The thing is, the Americans know that the outside world wants a piece of them. They have to protect their own game, though. Imagine a situation in 2020 where we have MLR, and then we also have two separate American teams in the Pro14 and Super Rugby tournaments. Then you’re trying to tell everyone that MLR is working, but the players might strive to be part of those Super Rugby and Pro14 teams because the money is better or the level is a bit higher. And if the guys play in those tournaments, they may be in a difficult spot regarding selection for the US team. That scenario would be a nightmare.
– This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of SA Rugby magazine.