USARL AMNRL American Rugby League Growth and Development

The Future of International Rugby League: United States

Despite rugby league’s inherent marketability, and the publicity and goodwill the national team’s World Cup debut garnered, rugby league remains a minnow sport in the United States. Although many are working tirelessly, the USA Tomahawks’ chances of competing with the world’s best, and the US governing body’s hopes of building an adequate domestic competition or producing top-class home-grown talent, appear wafer-thin.

The 2013 Rugby League World Cup

The Tomahawks’ charge was unquestionably the feel-good story of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup. Qualifying for the tournament was a landmark achievement, but the Tomahawks – featuring a string of Australians who boasted American lineage – rolled Cook Islands (32-16) and Wales (24-16) in their first two games, and progressed to the quarter-finals after a hard-fought 22-8 pool loss to another surprise packet, Scotland. They exited courtesy of a 62-0 loss to the Kangaroos – a fair reflection of the gulf in class between the two sides – but the Terry Matterson-coached USA side lost few admirers. Optimists predicted a glorious new era for rugby league in the States.

The Wiggles memorably decided to honour the Tomahawks’ pool stage heroics, with group founder Anthony Fields – a Wests Tigers fanatic – penning a tribute song, ‘USA Tomahawks Shocked the World’. A clip for the song had attracted tens of thousands of views within days, while a line in the song urged ‘President Obama … to carve the face of Joseph Paulo on Mt Rushmore’ in reference to the Tomahawks’ star player.

The History of Rugby League in the USA

Several attempts have been made to establish Rugby League in the crowded American sporting market over the last 60 years. The Rugby League News reported in 1932 that English and Australian administrators were making official moves to ‘popularise the game in America’. Famed administrator Harry Sunderland, who was integral to the development of the game in Queensland, Victoria and France, was the first prominent figure to spread the Rugby League gospel to the United States.

It was through Sunderland’s endeavours that the American All-Stars ventured on a trailblazing tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1953, under the guidance of flamboyant manager-player Mike Dimitro, a talented all-round sportsman. Dimitro assembled a team of gridiron players to tour Down Under, where the All-Stars were met by Balmain stalwart player, coach and administrator Norm ‘Latchem’ Robinson, and former Test player and referee George Bishop, to teach the squad the finer points of Rugby League.

Plenty of hype surrounded the tour, but the All-Stars were generally a disappointment, despite defeating Monaro and Southern Division 34-25 in their opening match. Resplendent in their gridiron-style red, white and blue uniforms (with stars on the shoulders), the All-Stars were greeted by a phenomenal 65,453-strong Sydney Cricket Ground crowd for the second match of the tour, a 52-25 loss to Sydney. But the All-Stars’ record of 13 losses in 18 games supported the claims of Australian detractors that the tour was a farce.

Despite the American team’s lack of success on tour, Australian officials persisted in their drive to build a profile for Rugby League in the United States, staging two exhibitions games in California between Australia and New Zealand following the 1954 World Cup in France. Australia won both matches in front of modest crowds and the experiment was a financial flop. USA was comfortably beaten by France in an international in 1954, while Dimitro’s bid for the United States to host a World Cup tournament in the 1960s was unsuccessful after receiving little support from the major Rugby League-playing nations.

Rugby League underwent a mini-revival in the U.S. in the late-1980s. After an American national side played the inaugural international against northern neighbours Canada in 1987, won by the Canadians, California hosted a promotional State of Origin match between NSW and Queensland. The Blues won 30-18, but the match – played in front of just 12,349 people – was derided as a ‘Mickey Mouse’ affair by many in Australia and did not garner any traction for the code stateside.

Another Rugby League exhibition match was staged in 1989, between heavyweight English clubs Wigan and Warrington in Wisconsin, Milwaukee. The most significant development since the All-Stars tour occurred in 1992. A United States team was invited to play in the pre-season World Sevens tournament in Sydney, and despite failing to win a game in the 1993-94 tournaments, the Patriots proved to be one of the most popular and colourful teams.

International matches against Canada and Russia in 1993-94 were a precursor for USA’s entry into the Emerging Nations World Cup in 1995. As a warm-up for the tournament, the United States hosted Wales in a two-international series in Philadelphia. Both matches were won convincingly by the visitors – 92-4 and 66-10 – with young Welsh stars Keiron Cunningham and Iestyn Harris running riot. The Patriots were defeated in all three pool games against Cook Islands, Scotland and Russia at the Emerging Nations World Cup.

USA also fielded teams in both the Australian Rugby League’s World Sevens tournaments and Super League’s World Nines tournaments in 1996 and ’97. A semi-professional domestic competition began in the late 1990s, beginning with four teams and expanding to 11 teams by 2010, and the USA national side dominated Canada in regular internationals. But USA’s quest to participate in the 2000 World Cup in England was halted by a heavy loss to Lebanon.

The USA Tomahawks, as they were now known, ventured to Australia to play South Sydney as a warm-up for the 2000 Emerging Nations World Cup. Souths won 82-12 in front of 20,535 fans at Redfern Oval in a match that doubled as a forum to push for the Rabbitohs’ reinstatement to the NRL. After a crushing 110-0 loss to England in another warm-up match, the Tomahawks defeated Morocco in a play-off for third place in the Emerging Nations tournament.

The most important international match played in the United States to date was in 2004, when the Kangaroos played the Tomahawks in Philadelphia en route back to Australia after their successful Tri-Nations campaign in England. The match was expected to be a cakewalk for the star-studded Australian side, but the Tomahawks stunned the travel-weary world champions to lead 24-6 at halftime. Bolstered by NRL players Matt Petersen and Brandon Costin (who both qualified for the United States team through family links), the Tomahawks were eventually overrun 36-24 by the fatigued Kangaroos, with North Queensland fullback Matt Bowen scoring a hat-trick.

South Sydney owner and Hollywood actor Russell Crowe set up an exhibition match between the Rabbitohs and Super League champions Leeds prior to the 2008 NRL season. The contest was played in front of a 12,500-strong crowd in Jacksonville, Florida.

Matthew Elliott, boasting a decade of NRL head coaching experience with Canberra and Penrith, assumed the position of United States coach in 2011. He guided the Tomahawks – featuring Petersen and a clutch of other players with NRL experience, Ryan McGoldrick, David Myles and brothers Junior and Joseph Paulo – to victories over South Africa and Jamaica to qualify for a historic maiden World Cup berth for the 2013 tournament in Britain.

The Domestic Scene – AMNRL & USARL

The north-east coast has traditionally been the heartland of Rugby League in the United States, but recent expansion has seen a team from Jacksonville, Florida, established. Five teams that competed in the American National Rugby League (AMNRL) competition split from the AMNRL and were joined by new clubs from Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Jersey to contest the inaugural USA Rugby League (USARL) National Championship in 2011. The Philadelphia Fight defeated the New Haven Warriors 28-26 in the first USARL Grand Final, while several West Coast-based development clubs were founded. The Jacksonville Axemen downed the Boston 13s in the 2012 decider, while the Fight claimed the 2013 title with a grand final win over the Axemen; the competition was reduced to six teams in the latter year after Baltimore and Oneida FC pulled out.

The civil war between the USARL and AMNRL eventually ended this year, with the collapse of the AMNRL. The USARL competition subsequently expanded to 10 teams, encompassing a North and South Conference, with Philadelphia again defeating Jacksonville in the grand final. Many of the clubs have registered developing teams, while various Nines tournaments and age-group sides have been established. On the whole, the organisation and structure of the game at an administrative level appears to be constantly changing. Clearly, regaining stability is a critical challenge for rugby league in the region: one that is likely to dictate future growth and success.

The American Rugby League Talent Pool

Don’t be fooled by the Tomahawks’ strong World Cup results – the USA’s talent pool should have a precautionary ‘No Diving’ sign next to it. Just four players in last year’s squad were selected from the domestic competitions. Most of the squad were Australians playing Queensland Cup, NSW Cup or for country sides. Parramatta’s Joseph Paulo was the only NRL regular – and, accordingly, he was far and away the Tomahawks’ star player – while winger Matt Petersen played his last first grade game for the Titans five years earlier.

Bureta Faramio was snapped up by the Eels and a couple more received offers in England, but the reality is that born-and-bred Americans barely featured, and the one that did – centre Taylor Welch – was wholehearted but several rungs below NRL standard. Any foreign players with tenuous American links that are genuine rep-class players will be snapped up by their ‘home’ nations, while others affiliated with NRL clubs are unlikely to be permitted to play for the Tomahawks other than at a World Cup.

The best US-based athletes will chase lucrative contracts in the NFL and the like, meaning the domestic rugby league competitions are destined to be filled up with expats and gridiron rejects.

The Rugby Union Example

Rugby union enjoys far greater exposure, popularity and playing numbers (at senior and junior levels), while the USA Eagles have competed at every World Cup since the inaugural 1987 tournament, and recently hosted the All Blacks in front of a sold out crowd in Chicago. Still, the national side (which is made up of home-based players) is ranked a lowly 16th – directly behind European minnows Georgia – and remains as uncompetitive against the big guns as ever. Rugby league could only dream of the same level of exposure and participation, which suggests their prospects of getting Tests against the likes of Australia, New Zealand and England outside of a World Cup are virtually nil.

David Niu: The Aussie-American Crusader

St George’s 1991 end-of-season trip to Hawaii had a long-lasting impact on Rugby League in the United States. Halfback David Niu met his future wife on the holiday and moved to Philadelphia. He was a key figure in establishing a domestic competition in America and played for the national side between 1994 and 2006. Niu also represented the United States Eagles at the 1999 rugby union World Cup, but his heart remained in Rugby League and he took over as coach of the Tomahawks after his retirement as a player, while also serving in high-ranking administrative posts for the American National Rugby League. Any progress and success the code has enjoyed in the US, and North America as a whole, can be largely attributed to Niu’s tireless efforts; World Cup qualification would still be a pipe dream if not for the former Dragon.

The Hayne Factor

Jarryd Hayne’s shock move to the US to chase a fanciful NFL dream has undoubtedly made hundreds of thousands of Americans aware of rugby league and the NRL, but it is unlikely to translate into prolonged interest in our game. We’ve written about why Jarryd Hayne’s move may be good for rugby league; however, unless he succeeds in his quest, any benefit will quickly evaporate.

The Verdict on American Rugby League

Without trying to sound too negative about rugby league’s ability to achieve significant growth in the United States, it appears the Tomahawks’ 2013 World Cup campaign was a high watermark rather than a platform that will lead to the code exploding stateside. A repeat performance every four years on the international stage is probably a more realistic aim. That’s not to say they shouldn’t try – there are certainly some hardworking, passionate figures trying to bolster the code on the domestic front. But without regular competition against other top 14-ranked nations, getting any continuity will be impossible for the Tomahawks. The international heavyweights are focusing on development of the Pacific, British and European nations, while the US will almost certainly – and regrettably – be left to their own devices until the 2017 World Cup rolls around.

Read more about developing rugby league nations: The Future of Samoan Rugby League

There are 10 comments

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  1. Glenn Csonka

    Rugby League will never be as large as the big 4 major sports (Football, Baseball, Basketball, Hockey, and Soccer coming in as a 5th). Right now, the USARL is an amateur competition with players paying and fundraising to cover the costs of travel, venues, and uniforms. If the league ever had financial backing, then it could grow the sport to a wider area and be on par with sports like Arena Football and Indoor Lacrosse.

    Most Americans know of rugby, but there is a small portion (less than 1%) that realize that there are two different codes. Most Americans’ exposure to the sport is limited to Rugby Sevens. Unfortunately, the Union code has tried to garner support but has ultimately failed. League has the advantage of similar rules to American Football (with the tackle count/down and distance rules) that it has an opportunity to become a niche summer sport.

    I’m an American; and I consider myself to be a huge sports fan. I didn’t know about the differences in the codes until recently. I saw one League game and was hooked. Nothing against the Union code, but I find it difficult to watch. I’m sure that many Americans would be just like me after seeing the sport for the first time and understanding the basic rules.

  2. Mat Bacon

    I think League’s similarity to American Football is a problem… when Americans think “rugby,” they usually remember that men’s or college Union side they’ve heard of. It’s more exotic than League, in a way. Also, Union sold out Soldier field with 80,000 fans to see the All Blacks put the Eagles on the cover of Ass-Beat magazine, so there’s some upside to Union.

    League seems to be a Northeast sport, where people are more likely to know about rugby, and the code differences as well (due to heavy ethnic ties to the Six Nations competitors). Union is heavily West-coast oriented, for some reason, and many of the Eagles (who were raised here) played at University of California.

    I’m an American raised in Union. I watch both codes with no problem, and although I am frequently bored by the constant stoppages and dance numbers of the NFL, I watch that a bit as well.

  3. Ross

    If the USA national team actually contained USA nationals rather than assorted players with barely a minimal rinse of association with the USA then the sport may garner some wider support. People worldwide support their own national teams comprised of their fellow countrymen, unlike the USA World Cup team of ring ins.

  4. Rugby League Opinions

    Hey Ross, couldn’t agree more. The 2013 World Cup was, on the surface, a great success for the US (in terms of results); however, the strategy of selecting primarily ‘heritage’ players was short-sighted. The AMNRL was in control at the time, but the balance of power has now shifted to the USARL. That’s important because several USARL members spoke out during the World Cup, protesting the lack of opportunity given to born-and-bred Americans. Based on this, you can probably expect a different selection policy in future.

What are your thoughts?