PRO Rugby’s director of operations Steve Lewis reviews the inaugural season of America’s first professional league
By Graham Jenkins
“It’s been a wild ride,” said Steve Lewis, PRO Rugby’s director of rugby operations, as he reflected on the battle for the United States’ first professional league title.
Ohio Aviators claimed a 32-25 victory over Denver Stampede in the final dramatic act of the season – but it was not quite enough to deny their title rivals the glory, with Stampede claiming top spot in the final standings by a solitary point.
It was a roller coaster of a contest, echoing the fledging league’s first frantic few months as teams, players and coaches fell into place. The venues proved troublesome but also provided one of the stars of the competition – ‘The Village of Obetz’ in Ohio – that played host to the de facto decider.
“It really was a ’Field of Dreams’,” said Lewis in reference to the famous baseball movie of the same title and its ‘build it and they will come’ mantra.
“It literally was just a grass field,” he added. “We had to put all the infrastructure in but fortunately the people of Obetz were extremely cooperative and very welcoming. They did a great job and took the game and the team to their hearts.”
Lewis knows that the long-term success of the league – both on and off the field – rests largely on replicating that across the country.
“We’re aware that our ability to attract non-rugby people will be the barometer of our success and the exciting thing is that in places like Obetz we started to reach out and attract people who were not rugby fans.”
Stampede were led to victory by former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg, who was one of group of high-profile players that also included the likes of ex-All Blacks Jamie Mackintosh and Mils Muliaina. They were recruited by the league to ensure both experience and exposure.
“Wannenburg and Mackintosh, in particular, were real leaders in their respective teams,” said Lewis. “They all enjoyed being part of rugby history and pretty much all of them are interested in coming back.”
And they may not be the only instantly recognisable names lining up next year with agents set to ensure Lewis enjoys little downtime in the off-season.
“The amount of daily interest from agents of players and coaches has been significant. These guys are thinking both import and export. They are hoping to discover the next diamond in the rough, the next Samu Manoa-type of player.
“But they are also looking at where they can place their players because there is this belief that our schedule works well for South Africa, New Zealand and Japan, although not so much Europe.”
However, the big names did not take all the headlines.
“This year we also unearthed some good players that no one was aware of and they were certainly not on (USA head coach) John Mitchell’s radar.
“For example, in Sacramento there was Langilangi Haupeakui, who came out of nowhere. We picked him up after the start of the season from a local club and put him in a professional environment for the first time. He was then drafted into the USA squad and earned his first cap against Russia – all this within a couple of months.
“In San Diego, there was Cecil Garber. No one knew who he was and he ended up with the highest tackle count in the league.
“Then there was Ohio winger Spike Davis. He had played sevens but this was the first time he had played 15s on a consistent basis and he went on to be the league’s highest try-scorer.”
Such success will surely be welcomed by USA Rugby and new chief executive Dan Payne, who was among the 3,400 fans present in Obetz.
“He was pleased with what he saw,” Lewis said of Payne, who has not only played for the Eagles but served on the coaching staff.
“I’ve known him a long time, he knows most of the coaches and he’s a well-known guy in the American rugby community, so we are looking forward to nurturing that relationship.”
But did the general standard of play impress as many of the players did?
“We had some blowouts in the middle of the season but if you look at the last four or five weeks we had exciting and tight games.
“So from my perspective we got the parity part right, we also got excitement and all the data in terms of ball in play, clean ball from scrums etc looks pretty good too.”
GROWING THE GAME
For that, Lewis is grateful to the input of the coaches. “That has been an underappreciated part of the competition. This has not just been an opportunity for players but also coaches, referees, broadcasters, the whole rugby eco system.
“Sean O’Leary and Paule Barford have done particularly well in Denver and Ohio respectively in establishing a culture which was a huge factor in their success.”
There is little time to dwell on that success with planning already well underway for next year, with an expansion in the pipeline – most likely north of the border into Canada.
Yet the East and North-East of the country remain the key battlegrounds with 40% of the country’s senior rugby players living around the cities of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC.
“We want to expand from a sponsorship and broadcast point of view but we do not want to dilute the quality,” said Lewis, aware of the limited home-grown talent pool available to the league.
The season has taken its toll on Lewis but he is understandably proud of what the league has achieved.
“There were a lot of naysayers at the beginning. This kind of project has been talked about many times before, people had said they were going to do this, do that – the difference is that we did it.
“I took quite a lot of personal satisfaction from proving certain people wrong.
“When it became clear early on that we were delivering then those voices went away, so I think those people have now accepted it is a job well done now.”
Read former England coach Stuart Lancaster talk about PRO Rugby chief executive Doug Schoninger in the September 2016 issue of Rugby World – on sale now.
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