As they say in the States, we’re in the fall. A year from now, Rugby World Cup 2015 will have been and gone, but for the moment while the heavy hitters are slugging it out in their own autumn internationals, the “tier 2” nations – including the USA – are on their own World Cup preparation schedule.
Two weeks ago, the USA Eagles hosted the All Blacks
in a momentous occasion at Soldier Field in Chicago. New Zealand won 74-6. A week later, fifteen of the Eagles’ squad took the field again in Bucharest against Romania. They won 27-17, but couldn’t match that result on Saturday against Tonga at Gloucester, losing 40-12.
The match will have had a special significance for Nigel Melville, now CEO of USA Rugby but previously Director of Rugby at Kinghsolm. He’s been in post since 2006, and saw the meeting with the All Blacks as a significant day.
“We’ve always wanted to showcase the game to an American audience and people were amazed by the All Blacks” he said. “It’s very rare you get the tier 1 teams coming over here to play in a market like ours. It was tremendous to have them over and it was a way of showing the kids what we aspire to. There were fewer than 1,000 people at my first international in 2007 so to get 62,000 shows a lot of progress.”
Nigel clearly has a lot on his plate. There is strong interest in the game on the East coast, but elsewhere interest is in pockets, with growth in Texas and Colorado.
Professional rugby in America is still a year or two away, and only 12 of the squad train and play full time in Europe. Blaine Scully at Leicester and Chris Wyles at Saracens are probably the best known in the Premiership. With a game against Fiji to finish this short tour, Melville says it’s a chance to create some depth in the pool of players USA have to pick from.
“You know what you get when you play the island teams” said Nigel. “It’s hugely physical, and remember they collectively have between 200 and 300 professional players in Europe. We want to play a number of the younger guys who are competing for a World Cup place.”
“The boys are great ambassadors for the sport – they are very committed and physical but they play with a smile of their faces. We’ve got a quite a big side, especially up front and they are tenacious and don’t give up.”
Melville was at Gloucester between 2002 and 2005. Now 53, he still remembers his time here with a lot of fondness, even if it did include a humbling Premiership Final defeat to Wasps.
“I love passionate rugby people and I’ve got nothing but respect for the Gloucester crowd and their passion for the game” reflected Nigel. “There were some great times, including two wins at Twickenham. The defeat against Wasps changed the way people approach the season. The team was a fun set of guys who had played really well but the problem was the gap between the end of the regular season and the play off. We were sitting on our hands waiting for a game and some of the players had been told that they weren’t staying the following year.”
The USA play their last pool match at the 2015 Rugby World Cup at Kingsholm against Japan. The group looks set to be dominated by South Africa but Melville says the Eagles must set a realistic target.
“We won one match last time so the aim is to win two” he said. “Japan provide a different test, Samoa are a big physical team and South Africa probably fancy winning the tournament. Scotland have GOT to play well. Everywhere we go we’ll be playing a team that is desperate to win. There will be no easy games.”
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