Rugby Union: Can North America Handle Its Huge Summer Schedule?
In early November 2004, your humble correspondent was able to secure a single seat in the back-row of the upper-deck in London's Twickenham Stadium, to see his beloved Canada take on England on their home ground. As I eagerly purchased my commemorative program, I was shocked to see that Canada was going to take the field without most of its compliment of overseas professionals, who had not been released by their pro clubs.
It was a forgettable day for Canadian rugby that will never be forgotten. Sadly enough, there were those in the British press—such as rugby analysts at The Guardian—who easily predicted the 70-0 massacre that was to follow.
The width of several prairies separate the impoverished Canadians from their hosts and playing for the Castaway Wanderers or the Old Boy Ravens at the University of British Columbia is clearly no preparation for top-level professional sport. The International Rugby Board (IRB) meets in Dublin this week and its big hope is for rugby to win Olympic recognition and thus qualify for greater funding in countries where rugby is currently a poor relation.
After sheepishly dragging my Canadian flag past throngs of festive, but depressingly sympathetic English rugby fans, I had the opportunity to read the following words in the Canadian media the next day.
They were the words of former Canadian National Senior Team Head Coach—and current U.S. Women's Sevens Coach—Ric Suggitt, who understood the problem all too well.
We need to play more games of this quality. I'd like to play England 20 times a year if we could. ... I'm sure each and every time out we would get better.
Almost a decade later and many of the factors that were blamed for the 2004 debacle have been addressed.
Due to the creation of IRB Rule 9, no longer do Canada and the United States do battle on the international rugby pitch without their overseas-based professionals. Centralized training in both countries has largely eliminated the problems caused by having elite domestic players spread across vast land masses.
Finally, rugby has indeed found its way into the Olympics—beginning in 2016—albeit only in the Sevens version of the game; resulting in large funding increases for the sport in both countries.
Suggitt's call for more matches for his, then, besieged Canadians was always going to be one of the more difficult pieces to arrange.
Both Canada and the U.S. are geographically isolated from much of the rest of the rugby world. In addition, many of the top-tier nations were already involved in competitions which took place over unique windows of time on the rugby calendar.
The RBS Six Nations, which has included Italy for over a decade, takes place during February, when national team activity in North America is at a minimum.
In the Southern Hemisphere, the competition now known as The Rugby Championship—which involves New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina—kicks off in late August when the few summer international fixtures in North America are usually coming to an end.
Both of these tournaments represent long strings of matches that are quite simply unavailable to both of North America's major unions. These tournaments are alliances between top-flight rugby nations, who have all agreed to release their top players from club duty for those competitions.
Due to these agreements, the world's top-ten nations have, at times, outnumbered their second-tier brethren by a ratio of 2:1 or more, when it comes to the number of international fixtures played annually. It seemed that the rugby world was quickly moving towards a permanent two-tier system.
For years, the concerns Suggitt had originally raised in 2004 went unaddressed, and many of the world's smaller rugby nations fell further behind the elite.
In the summer of 2013, that trend is finally set to come to an end with a vastly expanded summer schedule for both of North America's major rugby powers; Canada and the U.S. The changes did not come easily. The management of both unions pushed hard for a schedule of matches that went beyond what the IRB announced in its recent schedule for Tier-Two Nations.
The result was North American participation in an enhanced Pacific Nations Cup, alongside Tonga, Fiji and Japan.
With all of these matches being played during North America's existing summer test season, both countries have more than doubled the amount of fixtures they are expected to play during that time period.
These matches represent a dramatic increase in the competition schedule, and cannot possibly be undertaken with the standard compliment of 26 players that would embark upon a routine summer tour. Both Canada and the United States will have to utilize their expanded depth charts, with unpredictable results.
The Pacific Nations Cup, however, does not represent the end of the schedule additions.
Both unions have committed to fielding a combined North American All-Star Team against South Africa's Golden Lions, who play in that country's Currie Cup competition. The South Africans will play the North American Selects on back-to-back weekends in mid-April.
With all of these additions, both countries will be forced to embark on a schedule which is, arguably, far more rigorous than the 2011 Rugby World Cup. The schedule for both nations involves travel across the breadth of North America and ends with an almost inhuman month of June, halfway around the world.
For example, the United States—after playing in Canada on May 25—must then go on to play four matches in June, ending in a painful flight to Japan where the Eagles will be forced to play two matches in five days.
Each of the five separate opponents the U.S. will face this summer is more highly ranked, and it will be near impossible for either North American squad to field their top players in all of these matches.
Choices will have to made. Younger players will have to be exposed. The results will be very interesting to behold. For while fans across North America may be thrilled to have so much elite rugby action taking place on home soil, their eyes will not be the only ones watching.
Canada and the United States have been pleading for more international competition for more than a decade; now that it has arrived, the entire rugby world will, no doubt, be watching to see if North America can rise to the challenge.
Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. To follow the author in Twitter, click on the link below.
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