Column: USA win Rugby World Cup 2031, if anyone cares
The United States won another World Cup.
Before you start celebrating or planning your trip, a few caveats:
That’s still more than nine years away.
And, uh, it’s the Rugby World Cup.
The sport that most Americans have only a vague knowledge of – hey, isn’t it like football, just without the pads, helmets or forward passes? – will bring its biggest event to this country in 2031 (with the female version in 2033).
While the Rugby World Cup only ranks behind the Summer Olympics and the Soccer World Cup in some corners of the planet, it certainly doesn’t belong in the United States.
Quick, who is the reigning world champion? Where will the next Rugby World Cup be played?
Even with a nine-year lead time to develop the game and garner interest, it’s hard to see how rugby will ever carve out more than the smallest of niches in the American sports scene.
But some are up for the challenge.
“Look, we know that in the United States there’s a lot of competition for consumer money,” said Amanda Windsor White, president of Rugby ATL, Atlanta’s team in America’s top professional league in the country. sport. “We need to work a bit more from a marketing perspective to build awareness and give potential fans a reason to come see us.”
For those who haven’t noticed, Major League Rugby is a 13-team league that was launched in 2018. While the number of teams has nearly doubled in the league’s brief history, it doesn’t has yet to generate much interest, playing mostly in small stadiums in front of sparse crowds.
But World Rugby, the international governing body, is keen to expand its game beyond the traditional homes of South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Britain, Ireland, France and the South Pacific islands.
White and other MLR members hope to capitalize on this push. She thinks the physical nature of rugby comes naturally to American sports fans, not to mention social traditions like tailgating and players from both teams getting together after games to raise a few beers.
“We know there are people out there who like to be trendsetters,” White said. “Once they’re exposed to it, they’re going to love it.”
The last World Cup, in 2019, was played for the first time in a non-traditional country. Rising power Japan hosted a tournament that ran into major problems, from the proposed main stadium in Tokyo not being completed on time to the unprecedented cancellation of three matches due to a typhoon.
But the experiment was generally considered a success, with an average crowd of over 37,000 and hosts Japan reaching the quarter-finals before losing to eventual champions South Africa.
(Note: This is the answer to our previous question. Also, the next World Cup will be played in France in 2023.)
Japan is the country generally touted as the model that World Rugby hopes to emulate in the United States with its national team, known as the Eagles.
Japan’s victory over three-time world champions South Africa at the 2015 tournament is widely regarded as the biggest upset in rugby history.
In the lead up to the 2019 World Cup, Japan have received significant training expertise from the world governing body and more opportunities to face top nations in test matches.
This formula will now be tested in the United States, hoping to use the next nine years to build the Eagles into a team that could possibly reach the quarter-finals by 2031.
“We have to develop our talent now,” White said. “We want to show on the world stage that USA Rugby can compete with the best of them.”
The Eagles are certainly nowhere near that standard at the moment.
While the United States have played in all but one World Cup since the inaugural tournament in 1987, they are far from breaking out of the group, winning just three of 25 matches and being outscored 892-350.
Their performance in 2019 was typical: four consecutive defeats against England (45-7), France (33-9), Argentina (47-17) and Tonga (31-19) and a last place in the hen c.
Any attempt to make the United States the next Japan will face significant obstacles.
Most notably, there are far more team sports – soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey and football – with significant followings in this country, making it harder for rugby to attract top athletes. and to be heard above the noise.
And unlike the FIFA World Cup, which will largely take center stage in the summer of 2026 when the United States hosts Mexico and Canada, rugby’s biggest event usually takes place in September and October.
This schedule, of course, conflicts with the busiest part of the sports calendar in America.
The NFL and college football are at the start of their seasons, while Major League Baseball is wrapping up its regular season and heading to the World Series. Major League Soccer could be in the middle of its playoffs and, oh yes, the NBA and NHL start their seasons in October.
Which begs the question: what if they stage a Rugby World Cup and no one in the host country notices?
Another potential problem: While the FIFA World Cup pretty much has its pick of prime venues in 2026, the facilities that would be used for rugby – typically, NFL and MLS stadiums – are being used by their major tenants in September and October.
This could force a US-based tournament to move from fall to late summer, which would fit much better into the US sports calendar. Then again, it would be a brutal time to organize matches, with the oppressive heat undoubtedly affecting the quality of the game.
Of course, Americans love big events, even big events they know little about. Twenty-four cities, including nearly all of those currently in the running to host FIFA World Cup matches in 2026, have expressed interest in taking part in the rugby counterpart.
Given the country’s financial strength and organizational skills, the 2031 Rugby World Cup is likely to be a success.
Whether that will have a significant impact before – or after – the tournament proper, well, that’s far from a sure bet.
Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963
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