The USA Eagles men’s team is currently ranked #17 in the world by World Rugby. This is respectable but as with any competitive team striving to be the best there is room to improve.
The first step toward being the top team in the world starts with becoming a Tier 1 nation and World Rugby Shop’s Kimber Rozier looks at 5 changes that need to be made for USA Rugby to become a Tier 1 nation.
The USA women are one of three countries to have won the Women’s World Cup, and therefore could be considered a Tier 1 nation. But unfortunately World Rugby doesn’’t recognize their Tier status. The women’s team is currently ranked #7 heading into this fall’s Women’s Rugby World Cup. The focus of the remainder of the article will focus on the men’s team although many of the changes will also benefit the continued development of the women’s game.
Who Are The Tier 1 Nations?
World Rugby divides Rugby World Cup competitors into two tiers with a third featuring developing nations.
The Tier 1 rugby nations are: Argentina, Australia, England, France, Ireland, Italy, New Zealand, Scotland, South Africa, and Wales.
The current Tier 1 nations all compete in either the northern hemisphere’s top annual international event, the Six Nations, or the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship. They also cross hemispheres to play each other each year in the Autumn Test Matches.
So what are the 5 changes needs to take the USA to the next level?
#5 More ‘True’ and Competitive Test Matches
It is no surprise that the Tier 1 nations have a long history with the sport of rugby but it can’t be ignored that they regularly play in competitive test matches. They are called ‘Test’ matches for a reason!
By comparison, the Eagles regularly compete in the Americas Rugby Championship. This frankly is not enough games against high level competition. The ARC technically includes Argentina, who compete as Tier One, but it’s their developmental or ‘Argentina XV’ side.
The other teams included in our region are Canada, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay. The USA is increasingly favored when facing any of these opponents.
Can matches against these rivals by called true ‘tests’ of our ability if our goal is to compete with Tier 1 nations?
Fortunately, World Rugby has announced a plan to increase the number of test matches between Tier 1 and Tier 2 nations. This will be a great opportunity for the Eagles but it should not stop with that agreement.
It would be great if World Rugby could help organize a Tier 2 tournament. This would give these teams with the greatest potential of becoming a Tier 1 nation high level competition on an annual basis much like the Tier 1 nations have in their regional tournament.
The Tier 2 tournament could include Georgia, Japan, and Fiji along with the USA and potentially other nations.
This is not too far fetched when you look at the growth of the Six Nations over the decades and more recently the Rugby Championship.
The Rugby Championship traditionally operated as the Tri-Nation tournament between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Argentina was then added into the mix.
Because they proved they were good enough to compete.
Sure, it might make for a bit of travel. But the US isn’t any farther from Japan than Australia is from South Africa. Or Argentina from any of the competing nations. We can’t set higher standards if we don’t consistently compete with the best.
#4 Raise Domestic Coaching Standards
The growing number of players starting to play rugby won’t be a huge game-changer unless we can improve the quality of coaching for these new players. This will ensure that players improve at each developmental stage and are ready when the time comes to represent their country.
To be a USA Rugby level 100 coach, you just have to prove you have a rudimentary knowledge of the game. Take a quiz online and you’re in. Which, to be fair, is a great option for sheer numbers and growth of the game. Moms and dads coaching their young kids in flag rugby is all we need to gain national interest in our beloved sport.
But at some point, the standards need to be set higher. While there are a few exceptions, there’s not necessarily a hierarchy. Even though USA Rugby offers higher, more rigorous qualifications, some coaches at adult clubs are no more qualified than the eager dad who just discovered rugby.
#3 Reverse Age Participation Numbers
While yes, the elite level athletes need to be constantly pushing the envelope, we don’t have enough youth engagement to filter in. Many quality organizations such as Atavus, Tiger, Scion, Rookie Rugby, PlayRugby USA, etc. are beginning to change that narrative. However, we’re still nowhere close.
The current state of American rugby shows numbers are higher at the senior and collegiate level than high school and youth combined. Old boys clubs and guys who picked it up after a college football career abound. What about the kids? The numbers are shockingly low at the youth level when compared to adult clubs. Let’s reverse that and increase numbers in youth programs.
Soccer is probably the best model for this. Regardless of exclusion from the big four ‘American’ sports, US Soccer has made an imprint on the world stage. And there are an insane amount of little kids playing soccer. The large majority of them will never even play past high school. But the sheer volume ensures that as kids age, they have opportunities to grow, be challenged, and get selected for higher level teams.
In contrast, a kid playing rugby might have one or two local teams to choose from by the time he’s in high school, and if he’s lucky he’ll get a call up to a USA Academy camp.
#2 Change the collegiate scene, change the game
Collegiate sports are a massive part of our culture. March Madness, football bowl games, and national championships set us apart from any Tier One nation. England, New Zealand, France, and more have academy structures at clubs to bring up youth talent. But it’s unrealistic for American rugby to follow in those footsteps.
Why? Athletic scholarships.
We’re losing our best athletes to football, basketball, soccer, or any other D1 collegiate sport. The promise of collegiate scholarships loom over any young athlete’s head. When given the choice between their club rugby program for fun or a scholarship offer in any other sport, what do you think most players will choose?
The current collegiate rugby structure is so confusing with multiple ‘national champions’ across two codes of the game. Varsity programs exist, but sparingly. And most of them are at smaller schools. Making rugby a prominent varsity Olympic sport, much like rowing or field hockey, will spur the growth at the youth level.
A pathway to compete at a high level during college is critical to the USA becoming a Tier 1 nation. College rugby is the missing link between youth development and international stars. Get more kids playing, develop them with better coaches, incentivize it through scholarships, and give our Eagles better competitions.
#1 Host the Rugby World Cup
The Rugby World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport and one of the most followed sporting events in the world (along with the World Cup and Olympics). The addition of rugby in the Olympic program was huge boost to the game – USA Rugby had almost 10 million unique visits during the Olympics – but hosting the Rugby World USA Rugby boasted Cup would change the rugby landscape in the U.S.
And the US is heading in the right direction in regards to this end. World Rugby selected the USA and San Francisco as the host for the 2018 7s World Cup which will give the perfect stage to showcase what the USA can do for the RWC.
Getting your product in front of as many eyes as possible is marketing 101. Right now, rugby is a product that more Americans want to buy. They just don’t know it yet. The Rugby World Cup is like the Olympics of our sport, so let’s give them a show on our home turf.
And there is good evidence that hosting a RWC will change the game in the U.S. When the U.S. hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup, soccer was still a developing sport in this country. Since the quadrennial tournament was hosted the U.S. has launched and sustained a professional league, developed more players, and have a national team that can contend with any other nation and have some talking about winning a World Cup in the next 20 years.
World Rugby needs to give the U.S a chance to show the world we are ready to embrace the game and establish ourselves as a Tier 1 nation.
HAVE YOUR SAY…What do you think USA Rugby needs to do to become a Tier 1 nation? Leave your comments below.
Kimber Rozier is a NSCA certified strength and conditioning specialist and Precision Nutrition nutritionist who holds dual Bachelor’s degrees in Exercise and Sport Science and Spanish from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She spends her time traveling the world as an international rugby player for the USA and her career in 7s and 15s has taken her to places such as Hong Kong, Paris, London, and Dubai. She earned a bronze medal in the 7s World Cup in Moscow and played fly half for the squad throughout 15s 2014 Rugby World Cup in Paris. Kimber has recently played overseas in Ireland, furthering her career with Railway Union, and now has returned home as an athlete with Scion Rugby Academy out of Washington, D.C.