Newcastle Falcons and Saracens meet in the USA on Saturday, Philadelphia, to be precise. But why?
I don’t ask that question to be facetious, but because rugby, and indeed football, have been trying to crack the USA for a long time and it does not really seem to work. Yes, every so often there is a glimmer of hope and a trickle of cash, and nobody can deny that what NBC are doing in terms of showcasing Premiership Rugby in the US is a great thing, but it is hardly cracking it.
It would be different if the US was the only global possibility, but why try to crack an already saturated market with little interest when there are interested markets elsewhere that are actually far better suited from a compatibility point of view.
The US offers two things, a common language and a bucket load of cash. Those are two big draws, there’s no question about that. However it also has significant flaws, primarily a lack of interest, and time zones that make it near enough impossible to schedule matches at convenient time for the local market there and the regular market here.
In Europe there are countries like Georgia, Germany, and Romania that would gladly receive Premiership fixtures and showcase them on TV. Not only that but there were would be a realistic chance of genuinely growing the game. All already have a keen interest in rugby and growing depth in their rugby. Adding some top level pro fixtures locally would surely attract big crowds, as opposed to the 10,000 in Philadelphia, and would likely encourage participation on the field.
That could lead to all three growing their top end game and eventually putting even more pressure on the European and International bodies to include them in more tournaments.
Is that not the aim of the experiment in the USA, growing the game? And it is not just Georgia, Germany, and Romania. Spain, Portugal, Russia, and others all have plenty of interest and make sense as partners.
I get the idea of expanding into the US, I really do, and both the Pro 14 and the Premiership are trying it, if in different ways. The potential there is huge, and admittedly the playing numbers are rapidly increasing. With their population there could be a huge amount of talent, and alongside it cash on a level that is unprecedented, globally, in rugby.
From the outside looking in, it looks as though the game that has the greatest chance of taking hold in America is 7s. The success of the 7s program has been impressive and the development of athletes from other sports a real success.
Perhaps the real debate then is not whether domestic competitions such as the Guinness Pro 14 and the Aviva Premiership should be looking towards a tough US market or an easier European one, but as to whether World Rugby sees 7s and 15s as separate sports in their own right or, as in the past, with 7s as the little brother to 15s.
The trajectory at the moment seems to be leading down the path of 7s being practically an independent sport in its own right. But if that’s the case, perhaps some time needs to be taken to decide whether to try and compete against each other for new markets, or whether to pick and choose new markets based on which works best for each sport.
Whatever the arguments and whatever the answers, whether I think it’s the right move or not, I certainly wish I was out in Philadelphia this weekend for Newcastle Falcons v Saracens – who doesn’t.
Perhaps that’s really the point.