News of the demise of the Elite Cup, the Division One USA Rugby Club competition, has been circulating for about a week now, with such factors as the newly launched Pacific Rugby Premiership being implicated in the breakdown. Watching from half a world away the news was patchy at best, not to mention wondering what impact this would have on the former Elite Cup teams.
I spoke to Marty Veale, head coach of Old Blue New York as his club was one of the ones caught in the crossfire. My first question was, in simple terms, what actually happened? “The PRP guys have got their own thing going now, which is great for them, they’ve got seven clubs, so they’re under control, they’ve got it sorted out. We were looking to do a similar sort of thing over here [on the East coast] with not as many clubs. We were going to be sanctioned by USA Rugby. Pretty much in the end three clubs wanted to work together, and were happy. One club didn’t. They decided they didn’t want to be in it. Their spokesperson and their top brass said they didn’t want to be in it, I don’t think the players knew too much what was going on. So they’ve decided to do what they think is best for their club, which means now there’s no series sanctioned by US Rugby.”
Veale does point to a future though. “Old Blue, Life and Boston are going to have their own series, our own home and away series. We’ve got to come up with a name, whatever we’re going to do with it, like what the West Coast guys have done. Then we’ll look to building it slowly, adding more teams as we get more developed.” The series, like the PRP, will operate independently of USA Rugby, although as Veale points out “We all have top class facilities and resources. We have the resources we need.”
Doug Coil, rugby coach at the University of Delaware, suggests an extension to this idea “Elite Cup needs to be Spring a League and may need Saturday/Sunday matches due to distance. New Orleans[for example] is sometimes playing Saturday/ Sunday Divison one Red River Matches (Texas Rugby Union) As a result of these matches they may not be a good fit.”
The tyranny of distance is also implicated in other teams as well, Seattle being similarly hamstrung “I sympathise with Seattle” Veale commented “If they want to play anyone they have to fly [as all non PRP teams are East Coast]” which lead to indications from some teams that they simply didn’t want to travel so far, especially as this was often resulting in players having to pay out of their own pockets to travel. Veale also points out “We’d be travelling this huge distance to then get up the following day and play. Look at Super Rugby, the Kiwi sides will fly to Perth a week before their game to get ready, we’d be flying out that evening and getting up the next day to play. It’s just not feasible. It’s still a big ask to fly to Atlanta to play Life University, Seattle involves multiple hours and multiple time zones.”
The idea of a spring league does seem to have some merit, Coil suggesting adding another Boston based team like the Irish Wolfhounds, or even a Toronto based team could be an option, although both Coil and Veale agree this is still a long term idea. In the short term growth of the game is the priority.
That said, the question has to be asked, has this implosion further damaged the credibility of US Rugby? Ahmad Bahrami, from Fresno Rugby gives a West Coast perspective saying “We still have the PRP, so that’s good, as all isn’t lost out West. Where it hurts is on getting the game to the mainstream in the USA, as we still don’t have a viable national professional level league. PRP keeps some of it going but we’ve seen super league, elite cup etc all fall. So without professional ranks I think some parents and kids Don’t see rugby as much of a priority as say MLB, NFL, or MLS. It won’t destroy rugby but a improving elite cup would have been a good place to grow the game here, and as we know the more people play the bigger the player pool for Eagles”
Veale also points out growing the game and the impact it will have on the Eagles “we need to develop so that beating Canada isn’t a surprise for us. Right now the USA have to play Uruguay to qualify for the Rugby World Cup 2015. That wasn’t in the calendar before so now that needs to happen which will impact on clubs losing players. That doesn’t have to be a negative though as it gives us a chance to promote more younger players through the squad.”
It seems certain that USA club rugby is not dead. The PRP is still alive and kicking, and the new East Coast league looks set to compliment this. This is all still a work in progress of course, but I’m certainly interested to see how this plays out.
Thank you to Marty Veale, Doug Coil and Ahmad Bahrami for their input into this article.
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Main Photo Credit: USA Rugby via Wikimedia Commons