An expanding pro league, a winning Eagles team and talk of a World Cup stateside. Former USA captain Todd Clever explains why there's a positive vibe in American rugby
Todd Clever: “Major League Rugby has been the missing link for USA”
All smiles for Uncle Sam. A 47-19 defeat of Canada this weekend maintained USA’s upward trajectory under head coach Gary Gold ahead of the World Cup in Japan. Since Gold took charge at the start of 2018, the Eagles have won 13 out of 15 Tests, including an historic victory over Tier One opponents (Scotland) last summer.
“Those wins have come on the back of a lot of hard work and the foundation that USA Rugby has put in,” says Todd Clever, the country’s most celebrated player with a record 76 caps before he retired in 2017. “Gary has instilled a great culture within the squad; they’re playing with cause and he’s reaping the benefits of the work that has gone in.
“And especially now with Major League Rugby (MLR) taking place here and having our athletes as full-time rugby players, along with players scattered across Europe and the southern hemisphere, that’s a major part of the success.
“Major League Rugby has been the missing link in our pyramid scheme of getting international rugby. We had a national team and then we had amateur university rugby all the way to youth rugby; our best players, and we’ve only had about ten, 12 guys at most, had the opportunities to play top-level rugby and the rest of the team was made up with teachers or plumbers or painters or whatever, playing part-time rugby. But now we’re fielding a whole squad and we have over 100 American full-time rugby players (to choose from), which is raising the bar.”
MLR, a nation-wide professional club competition, has been going for two years, with Seattle Seawolves emerging as champions in both finals to date after nail-biting wins against Glendale Raptors and San Diego Legion.
The competition will expand to 12 clubs next season and, increasingly, is attracting household names from Europe. Ben Foden, who plays for Rugby United New York, has likened the standard to the top of the RFU Championship but it will only grow stronger. Mathieu Bastareaud is joining New York for next year’s competition while Steffon Armitage and Dom Day are linking up with San Diego Legion.
“It’s exciting times for the league, with a lot of interest from overseas,” says Clever, a board member of USA Rugby. “One of the attractions is living in the States, playing in the States, travelling to great cities like San Diego, Seattle, New York, all cities that have teams.
“For the guys coming here, it may not be the same salary that they’re used to in Europe or in the southern hemisphere, but they’re enjoying the rugby and there are opportunities for commercial sponsorships. That’s some of the conversations I’m having with them, the agents that are bringing the players over; the contracts aren’t worth bragging about but the opportunity to work with companies is what matters.
“So we see a very bright future for MLR. There’s a process of educating the general public on the league and professionalism. People will grow up with it. Once we’re turning sports fans into rugby fans, with its family entertainment, it’s great to see the strides and opportunities.
“In ten or 12 years’ time the MLR I’m hoping will be one of the best competitions in the world, and showered with the best players in the world, from the southern hemisphere, Europe, all over. And obviously USA Rugby will benefit, the national team will benefit from that strength.”
The US Eagles have spent the past month in camp in Colorado Springs and Glendale, and with all players now full-time, the coaches are pleased to be working from a higher fitness base.
Blaine Scully, the ex-Leicester and Cardiff Blues wing, is the captain and the only man in the squad currently without a club. That’s if you discount Madison Hughes, Martin Iosefo and Ben Pinkelman, who are part of the USA Sevens squad that came so spectacularly close to winning last season’s HSBC World Series.
However, Samu Manoa, once such a formidable force with Northampton Saints, has retired from international rugby having initially been named in Gold’s training squad. The 34-year-old, now playing for Seattle Seawolves, last played for his country in the defeat to Ireland last autumn that ended the team’s nine-match winning run.
After their six-try triumph against Canada, the Eagles continue their Pacific Nations Cup campaign in Suva against Samoa and Japan. They meet Canada again in a Vancouver friendly on 7 September before launching their World Cup in Kobe on 26 September against England, who they met in the 1987, 1991 and 2007 tournaments. France, Argentina and Tonga complete their Pool C opponents.
Brett Gosper, World Rugby’s chief executive, has said that a USA bid to stage the Rugby World Cup in 2027 or 2031 is now likely and would be “highly attractive”, not least because of the broadcast revenues it would bring. That is music to the ears of Clever.
“To be part of something like that, to attract that, would be massive. In 1994 the USA hosted the Soccer World Cup and that changed the landscape of soccer here, the MLS is very strong.
“So if we’re able to put in a bid for 2027 or 2031 and have a World Cup in the States, it would be massive. You would have a huge spike in commercials and sponsorships and fill stadiums because of what a huge draw the Rugby World Cup brings. It’s the third-largest sporting event in the world and for us to capitalise that and to turn Americans into rugby fans, and see the cultures and values it has, would be huge.”
At 36, Clever could technically still be involved as a player but he’s happy adjusting to life as a former pro. His extensive CV includes a record 51 Tests as USA captain, World Cups in 2007 and 2011, and contracts in England, Japan and New Zealand – he was the first American to play Super Rugby.
“I’ve been a full-time athlete for 15-plus years and the transition has been pretty smooth; family enjoyment, spending time with my daughter, travelling. I’m still heavily involved in rugby as you can tell on the Major League side of things and also the USA Rugby board, and I also have the opportunity to work with some amazing companies.
“For example, I’m a brand ambassador for SleepScore Labs. I was using the app for almost a year before it was official, so I’m a user. I know how important sleep is, being a father and going through the motions of ‘You have a big day tomorrow’, but every day could be a big day and that should start with a good night’s sleep. Working with them is close to my heart because leading a healthy and happy life is important to me.”
Clever will be in Japan to see if USA can ruffle some feathers. They have only won three World Cup games in their history and lost all four pool games last time. Their easiest-looking match in Japan, against Tonga, comes just four days after they play Argentina. No one is expecting miracles at RWC 2019 – but the feel-good factor stateside is unmistakable.
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