For better of worse rugby in the United States and Canada is always going to be linked. The sports emerged in both places at roughly the same time, a lot of folks on both sides of the border have traveled to tournaments in both countries, and the national teams have played each other the most for each respective country. It’s a long history that dates back in modern times to 1977 when Canada won the inaugural test between the two countries 17-6. Since then the countries have played a total of 51 times with Canada coming out ahead 38-12.
As both teams approach Saturday’s match it looks good from a Canadian perspective but not an American one. The last U.S. victory in the series came back in World Cup qualifying with a 12-6 result. That was severely overturned the next week with another comprehensive victory. Since then Canada have won seven straight matches, including a win in World Cup qualifying last summer. Canada jumped out to an early lead in the match to win big. The Eagles kept it close in Toronto the following week but couldn’t overturn the results.
On the surface neither national team has much different. Both have had core groups of players that have been together for awhile and both have a number of players playing in top leagues. The U.S. has Scott LaValla in the Top 14, as well Samu Manoa, Chris Wyles, and Blaine Scully in the Premiership. There are also a few others in academies. Canada is similar with Jamie Cudmore in the Top14, and DTH van der Merwe, Jeff Hassler, and Tyler Ardron in the RaboDirect Pro12. Each team also has a number of players playing in the lower leagues of England, France, and New Zealand.
So what is the big difference? Is it the age at which players get started? The assumption is that most Americans don’t pick up the game until college. If you look at the current squad you see that isn’t true. Most of the players on the U.S. have either grown up overseas playing or got their start early in high school. Further, a number of Canadian players didn’t pick up the game until later as well.
It’s hard to pin down but if there is one glaring discrepancy between the two countries it comes down to the level of competition their domestic players are getting. Both countries are extremely big geographically. However, for Canada their population is set in certain areas—Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary—that all have active programs. This allows players to play against the best in their country more frequently. Most of the players in Canada find their way to the BC Premier League where they play at least a dozen games against top teams. On top of that they have the Canadian Rugby Championship which basically allows the national team coaching staff to see the top players against one other.
In the U.S. most clubs are spread around the country. If you look at the Elite Cup in 2013 almost every team had to fly to another city. The travel budgets of clubs are only so big and it limits how much travel you can do. Only in San Francisco, Southern California, and New York are their at least two clubs—and some of those aren’t even close to the same level—in one geographic area. This year’s Pacific Rugby Premiership broke that mold and delivered 12 high-level games to each club. It’s a model that if successful could mirror what Canada does.
Another factor is the use of 7s players in each country. Because the Canadian 7s program is based in Victoria those players are able to play 15s for their local club if they have a weekend off. U.S. players are based in San Diego, which does have a few strong clubs, but by and large those players don’t elect to play 15s and are not in the national team picture. Only Brett Thompson and Danny Barrett (forgot about Barrett earlier) are an active 7s player that will play for the Eagles over the week. Zach Test, the U.S.’s best player, hasn’t played a game of 15s in years.
These are just a few of the reasons for the difference. There are plenty of other factors, including coaching, youth programs, work, etc., that also factor into the difference. However, there is no question that getting top-level rugby improves the domestic player based. If the U.S. can get elite competitions going on both the West and East Coasts then they should be able to replicate what Canada is doing. But only time will tell.