Rugby’s global expansion: Taking the game to the world

Rugby Fans watch the All Blacks play Argentina
Rugby Fans watch the All Blacks play Argentina

"This move is more than just a name change. It is a mission statement," declared World Rugby chairman Bernard Lapasset last year as he unveiled the governing body's new name and outlined its quest to make the sport a truly global phenomenon.

The name change, from the International Rugby Board, was prompted by the growth in player numbers around the world, expansion in new countries and the game's eagerly awaited return to the Olympics in 2016.

But the sport is booming not only in new territories; there is also a rugby renaissance under way in many existing rugby-playing nations.

The first recorded game of rugby in the United States took place in 1874 (the US team would later win Olympic gold in both 1920 and 1924) but the sport is only now beginning to engage a mass audience.

"We have been named as the fastest-growing team sport in the States for the last three years," boasts USA Rugby chief executive Nigel Melville, who has overseen unprecedented expansion since taking charge in 2007.

USA Rugby has worked hard to nurture the grassroots game with initiatives like Rookie Rugby, a non-contact tag-based version of the game.

These efforts have no doubt been boosted by the inclusion of Sevens, the shortened version of the sport, in next year's Rio Games - for which US men's and women's teams have qualified - as well as the funding that such status brings.

"The public also think very highly of Olympians and so to qualify two teams to Rio, which we have done, is a major plus. Had we not qualified those teams, it would have had a serious impact on what we are doing going forward, so it is very exciting."

The development of rugby in the US has also been boosted by the support of one of the sport's major influencers, New Zealand.

A strategic partnership between USA Rugby and the New Zealand Rugby Union dates back to 2008 and has included player, coach and referee exchanges.

All Blacks vs USA Eagles, Soldier Field Stadium, Chicago November 2008
All Blacks vs USA Eagles, Soldier Field Stadium, Chicago November 2008

This partnership laid the foundation for a historic fixture between the All Blacks and the USA Eagles in Chicago last year that was described by Melville as "the biggest game in US rugby history".

The high-profile clash drew a capacity crowd to the sports-mad city's iconic 61,000-capacity Soldier Field stadium and a bumper TV audience, thanks to a rare national broadcast.

"It was a case of showing that we could stage such a game in the USA and we also got a chance to showcase the world champions to our market," says Melville.

"The first game I went to over here in 2006, the Eagles were playing at Stanford University in front of 500 people when it was free to get in. So we have certainly made a lot of progress."

The USA's successful staging of the All Blacks visit has since been rewarded with the hosting rights for the Rugby World Cup Sevens, which will take place in San Francisco in 2018.

Coaching expertise

Like the United States, Japan can boast an association with the sport that dates back to the 19th century.

They are another example of a developing nation boosted by both the power of the All Blacks' brand and expertise.

The Brave Blossoms, as Japan's national side are sometimes known, played host to the world champions in 2013 in a game that significantly raised the profile of the sport in a country that will play host to the Rugby World Cup in 2019.

Rugby fans cheer the Brave Blossoms
Rugby fans of Japan's national side, the Brave Blossoms

But the influence of New Zealand rugby extends beyond the commercial power of the national side.

Leading Kiwi coaches and players have long been a powerful and influential presence in Japan's Top League club competition. The expertise they offer in all aspects of the game, especially the physical demands and training techniques required at the tackle and in the scrum, where Japan have traditionally struggled, have been of most value.

With power and pace more important than ever in the modern game, is paramount. Both when training and playing, high safety standards promote good practice, help the game flourish and limit the chance of injury.

That message has been pressed home by the likes of All Blacks' forwards coach Mike Cron, who was one of a number of experts who helped create the current scrum engagement protocol.

"Crouch-bind-set" - the method by which those in the scrum must attach themselves to opposing players - was devised and implemented worldwide two years ago as part of the sport's efforts to improve player welfare.

The sequence reduces the impact on players, ensuring a more stable set-piece and, hopefully, limits the chance of serious injury. Moreover, a welcome by-product has been the return of the scrum as a key aspect of the game.

Player welfare and correct technique are also central to USA Rugby's efforts to attract and keep new players. This is especially important when there are increasing concerns about concussion when playing sport.

"If players come to our game and have a poor experience they are not going to come back or support the sport in the future," warns Melville. "So we have to make sure it is a safe and enjoyable environment for them to play in. Education is so important to players, parents, coaches and referees so that it is clear it is not big and tough to have concussion - you should not play on."

Talent production line

The US and Japan are not the only countries to benefit from New Zealand's enviable ability to produce and develop the world's most prized coaching talent.

Ireland coach Joe Schmidt and his Wales counterpart Warren Gatland are just two further examples of the value placed on the New Zealand coaching talent production line.

There are also many other Kiwis working across the globe, sharing their knowledge, encouraging good practice and helping the game's growth.

Rugby being played on the beach in Rio
The Rio Olympics in 2016 will bring further attention to the sport

Among them is Brent Frew, a member of the Christchurch-based International High Performance Unit, whose experience includes a stint alongside current All Blacks coach Steve Hansen during their time with New Zealand provincial side Canterbury.

His coaching journey has now taken him to Brazil, another country enjoying an exciting level of growth, benefiting from the interest and funding generated by the 2016 Olympics.

He is currently Brazil's high-performance director and coaches the national side, as well as overseeing the Sevens programme for men and women.

As hosts, Brazil will be dreaming of medal success at next year's Olympics - but the US is already aiming even higher.

"We want to be in the quarter-final of the World Cup in 2019, we want to win at the Olympics in 2016 and 2020 and obviously put on a great tournament in 2018," says Melville. "If we achieve all those goals, we are going to become a very competitive nation."

But that does not mean they will no longer require the help of leading nations like New Zealand.

"The challenge that comes with success is that we will need more coaches, more referees, better coaches and better referees," points out Melville. "We have a lot of development work to do to improve the quality of the play - not just the numbers."

It seems that as the game and player base grows, so does the hunger to learn from the best.

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