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“I cannot overstate how important it would be to see women’s rugby matches from the World Cup in NFL stadiums. That’s just unheard of.”
So said Phaidra Knight, former US Eagle and member of the World Rugby Hall of Fame, at an event this week to formally introduce the US bid to host the women’s Rugby World Cup in 2029 and the men’s in 2027 or 2031.
USA Rugby is thinking big – and not just in terms of the likely score when the men’s team play the All Blacks in Washington on Saturday, a game in part a World Cup taster.
According to Ross Young, chief executive of USA Rugby, “around 50,000” fans are expected at FedEx Field, home of the Washington Football Team and one of many NFL venues in US bid plans, for a game in which an Eagles team recently beaten by Uruguay faces a near-impossible task.
The World Cup bidding process will be more competitive. Major unions battered by Covid need a financial boost. On the men’s side, Australia are favourites to host in 2027. England are in for 2031.
Jim Brown, the US bid chair, has worked on bids for soccer World Cups and the Olympic Games. He said: “I think it’s clear to say that our preference is 2031.
“Given the extra time, we might want to focus on things like developing the game, developing the market for rugby and really maximising the potential long period of time if we are given that opportunity … along with 2029. The idea is to couple those two events together … and run them as one organisation.”
Young has extensive experience in rugby politics and logistics, having managed World Cups in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Asked about likely horse-trading among major unions, he said: “I’ve had a number of discussions with our friends in Australia … I know we’ll be having a number of internal discussions between all interested bidding parties.”
It follows that all interested parties will be interested in a US bid which includes 28 possible cities and big NFL venues from Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco, home of the 49ers, to the Hard Rock in Miami, home of the Dolphins.
Around the rugby world, the US remains an object of fascination. Its domestic men’s competition, Major League Rugby, recently completed a third full season. It provides all 23 players to face the All Blacks, a game day outside the autumn international window counting out those who play abroad. As Knight described, the game also continues to develop outside MLR, in schools and colleges, in sevens and, strikingly, on the women’s side of the ledger.
Carille Guthrie is president of the James G Robertson & Clive Sullivan Rugby Foundation, a nonprofit named for two Black pioneers in British union and league which wants to boost rugby in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the Washington area.
She told the Guardian that though the All Blacks game falls on homecoming weekend at Howard, a famous DC HBCU now making strides in women’s rugby, “there will be a Howard contingency there. They got some free tickets. And yeah, they’ve been incorporated into the week events.”
Young said such outreach work was a vital part of the World Cup bid.
“Legacy is something that’s always been thrown around major events,” he said. “In terms of what’s the benefit of bidding for the Rugby World Cup … [it] tends to be what comes after. We want the legacy work to start from when we’re awarded” hosting rights.
USA Rugby only recently emerged from bankruptcy. The World Cup bid, Young said, is “funded by private equity through a small group of rugby stakeholders”, which the Guardian has reported to be from MLR. Asked about guarantees to World Rugby usually underwritten by host governments, a distinctly unlikely scenario in the US, Young cited “a lot of interest in various private groups” but was not drawn on who.
The All Blacks are the biggest draw in the game. Washington is their first stop on a tour which will also land in Wales, Italy, Ireland and France.
They will field a shadow side, captained by a player coming back from absence due to family affairs. That man is, however, the 6ft 8in second-row Sam Whitelock, all 127 caps and two World Cup wins of him. Sam Cane, the outstanding flanker who succeeded the great Richie McCaw, will sit on the bench, a 74-cap hooker, Dane Coles, and Beauden Barrett, a fly-half twice world player of the year, riding the pine beside him. The Americans face a truly daunting task.
When it comes to World Cup bids, Japan has shown how things can go right. After hosting rights for 2019 were won, a professional league had time to bed in and grow. In 2015 the Brave Blossoms beat South Africa. In their own World Cup they made the knockout rounds. The first tournament held outside the traditional powers proved a resounding success.
The US has much further to go. There is also, if rather lost in its sporting past, a tale which shows how things might yet go rather wrong.
In 1859, a team of English cricketers mounted an American tour. Their aim was simple: to establish their game in America. According to the baseball historian Thomas W Gilbert, “the highlight was an October match … against a side made up mostly of New Yorkers”. Around 25,000 showed up “but the English thrashed the Americans so badly that cricket supporters worried it actually set back the cause in America. It probably did.”
On Saturday, most US sports fans will be preparing for baseball’s World Series – or watching college football. US rugby fans and the rest of the oval world will be watching the Americans facing the haka – and those cheering them on from the stands. No one expects the US to beat the All Blacks or even run them close. Everyone knows it’s time to put on a show.