It’s probably fair to say opinions varied as to the success of the opening night of Premiership Rugby in the United States last weekend. For the record Saracens beat London Irish 26-16 but the actual result, which kept Sarries on top of the Premiership pile, and the Exiles rooted even more firmly to the bottom, seemed to be lost in the general hoopla.
Mark McCafferty, Premiership Rugby’s chief executive, like all good promoters, employed a few embellishments and exaggerations to label the venture a roaring success. He called it a “great match”, which it was certainly not, and even the official attendance of 14,811, seemed to this television viewer, a few thousand ahead of reality judging by the number of empty seats.
McCafferty maintained that “It’s a start. I think everybody knows how huge a market the US is and how huge a sports market it is.”
This was the first in a three –year agreement to stage matches at the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey, though whether London Irish are involved in the fixture next year remains to be seen, as they sit eight points adrift of safety with only six games to play.
Admittedly, the timing could have been better. It was not just that this historic occasion clashed with a moderately interesting fixture between England and Wales. The call last week by 70 “experts” for tackling to be outlawed in schools attracted plenty of debate and inevitable ridicule. But what cannot be so quickly brushed aside is the increasing number of so-called “soccer moms” in the States, parents afraid of the potential physical harm to Bradley junior from their playing American football. No doubt one of the most popular questions asked of the Premiership visitors was “Where are your helmets guys?”
Amid the usual rejoinders about American football tacklers leading with their heads with the resultant extra potential for concussions, rugby’s rulers would do well not to sound so complacent and gung ho. There are a few key areas rugby union needs to get right before it can hope to sell itself compellingly to a market already familiar with big blokes running into each other. The most obvious are the types of high hit which such players as Manu Tuilagi have made their stock-in-trade.
The England player James Haskell pointed out that teaching young kids the correct tackling technique at the right age is absolutely fundamental. And herein surely lies the key to exporting rugby union to the US. Back in the day the round ball game was introduced on premise of the likes of Pele and Franz Beckenbauer looking for a pension. Eventually, the professional game withered and died. There was a recognition that the sport would only take root if the native younger generation took it up at school level, and this tied in nicely with the “soccer mum” phenomenon. So would a new sport built around physical content encourage those same soccer moms to steer Bradley junior towards that muscular new sport on the block?