Premiership Rugby in the USA: London Irish v Saracens - the start of things to come?

By Adam WilliamsBBC Sport
Nick Tompkins
Saracens celebrate Nick Tompkins' victory-clinching try at the Red Bull Arena

Premiership Rugby made its first foray into overseas territory on Saturday as New Jersey's Red Bull Arena hosted the first-ever competitive English domestic league fixture on foreign soil.

Saracens took the honours on the pitch, returning to the top of the table with a 26-16 victory over struggling London Irish, but did the decision to schedule a game on the other side of the Atlantic pay off?

Premiership Rugby chief executive Mark McCafferty says the planning for next year's return visit has already started with the aim of selling-out a regular season game at the 25,000 stadium by 2018.

A 'good beginning'

London Irish v Saracens
The shirts of the Saracens team are hung up in the changing room before the match

McCafferty, one of many driving forces behind taking England's top-flight competition to north America, believes they now have a template for future growth.

"It's always a challenge to get through the first one, but I think we've made a really good start," he told BBC Sport after the full-time whistle.

But, on a weekend when the Six Nations took a pivotal twist, the inaugural game was battling for recognition in its own country, let alone trying to break into the American sporting consciousness.

"I don't imagine it changing for next year (from a Six Nations weekend)," McCafferty said. "But, I do imagine a point in future when that would be the case.

"We have to plan around winter. Early March is a good time of year with not competing too much with the other US sports, which are obviously huge."

Despite a week of publicity events and both sets of players meeting the local community, it was hard to find any column inches or much radio or TV time devoted to publicising the game to the US audience.

The main talk on the New York sporting agenda in the build-up to Saturday's game centred around who local NFL sides the Jets and the Giants will try to snap up as free agents, and college basketball's Big East series coming to town at Madison Square Garden.

Saturday's crowd of 14,800, which is around average for a domestic Premiership fixture was labelled "a good starting position" by the organisers.

"We've got to make sure we have a date in the calendar that gives us the best possible chance at it being successful," McCafferty added.

"I guess our message is 'Premiership rugby's in town'," he added. "We want to get as many Americans out there as possible watching it."

Players' perceptions

Alistair Hargreaves and Matt Symons
Alistair Hargreaves wins a line-out tussle with London Irish's Matt Symons

Saracens' Alex Goode, who scored 19 points in the game: "Anywhere we can grow the game and get more fans on board is brilliant. It's a huge role for the game to keep expanding, keep bringing the popularity of the game to new places.

"Maybe we've done it today, we don't know. But's it's been great for the fans and the players to have a different scenery and we've really enjoyed ourselves and the American people have been great."

London Irish winger Alex Lewington, a first-half try-scorer: "I'd love to play here every week to be honest.

"The size and quality of the pitch were unbelievable. It was amazing and I'd love to do it again next year."

London Irish scrum-half Scott Steele: "It's not very often that you get the chance to go to New York with your usual job. The training facilities that we used during the week with the New York Jets were amazing.

"When I first heard about the idea of taking a game away, factors like jetlag came to mind. But, we got looked after really well by everybody and it's been a really good occasion."

The coaches' views

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall: "An occasion like this deserves us to be able to come here with our full squad. That wasn't to be because it's in the middle of the Six Nations.

"I do feel it needs to be organised at a time of the year when all the stars you can have here are going to be here.

"We had a lot who played very well for England against Wales. I think America would love to see the likes of Maro Itoje, George Kruis and Billy Vunipola.

"But, it felt like something different. Not like a run-of-the-mill Premiership match, which is an important thing."

London Irish head coach Tom Coventry: "Spending some time together on a tour in the middle of a Premiership season is very unusual.

"There's been plenty of positives, the only negative (for us) has been the result really.

"I think it's a progression of growing the game of rugby union in general. For Premiership Rugby, I think it's a positive step forward."

The game itself

Sean Maitland
Sean Maitland carries the ball out of defence for London Irish in front of a crowd of 14,800

A meeting of top v bottom might have been viewed as something of a mis-match before kick-off, but the actual result reflected a hard-fought contest.

'Home side' London Irish, eight points adrift of safety, gave an encouraging account of themselves in their must-win scenario, particularly in the first-half.

Curious locals among the crowd were treated to two well-taken tries in the opening 40 minutes from Saracens and England full-back Alex Goode and Exiles winger Alex Lewington as Irish took a well-deserved six-point lead into the break.

But Irish were once again not clinical enough in the second half, when Saracens turned the screw to score 20 points to their three.

The scrappy nature of centre Nick Tompkins' match-winning try late on summed up the Exiles' lack of good fortune in their struggle at the Premiership's basement.

End result: Saracens get a big result in the Big Apple by going back above Exeter at the summit, Irish remain deep in the mire with the threat of relegation increasingly looming with just six games to play.

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