Rugby Union: Cross-Border Clashes and Pro Possibilities

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Rugby Union: Cross-Border Clashes and Pro Possibilities
Photo Credit: Mr. Jose Romelo Lagman

Having eliminated the possibility of European rugby expanding to North America in my February interview with RaboDirect Pro 12 Director David Jordan, I sat down in March to talk with SANZAR's CEO Greg Peters to discuss his organization's plans concerning possible entry into the Americas. 

Mr Peters was clear that one of the important pre-requisites for such expansion would be the establishment of second- and third-tier competitions, which would develop the necessary talent across countries like Canada and the United States.

"We have found that for Super Rugby teams to be successful, you often need a third-tier competition like the Currie Cup in South Africa or the ITM Cup in New Zealand."

Such competitions are not entirely absent from the rugby scene in the Americas, as the Americas Rugby Championship (ARC) has repeatedly demonstrated.

The Americas Rugby Championship is one effective layer of player development in the Americas, but more are needed.

But where can elite players in the Americas go to find high performance opportunities at a sub-national level?  Competitions like the Currie Cup, remember, are generally between regional representative teams, not national sides. 

Here too there is a working model already in place. 

In Canada, the Canadian Rugby Championship (CRC) has seen that country's four rugby regions compete against each other in a five-game round-robin tournament; a format that has seen numerous athletes identified and elevated to the national team.

In South America the The Confederación Sudamericana de Rugby (CONSUR) has been another effective development pathway; one which sees Argentinian provinces squaring off against the national sides of smaller South American rugby nations.

In May of 2012, The Ontario Blues, the reigning CRC champions were sent on a tour of the CONSUR nations and teams in South America, in part, to test where the Canadian competition measured against their South Hemisphere counterparts. The results couldn't have been better for the future of rugby in the Americas. 

The Ontario provincial squad racked up hard-fought wins against the Uruguayan national team and Argentina's Salta Province, while dropping a razor-thin decision against Chile. 

The parity between North and South American regional sides was obviously there, but where in all this—you may ask—are teams from the United States?

Spanish language highlights from the 2012 Ontario Blues tour of South America - Ontario v. Uruguay

The answer will, in part, be provided on May 4, when the Ontario Blues once again venture beyond Canada's borders to take on the famed New York Athletic Club (NYAC), on Travers Island in New York. 

The game is an effort to grant American players access to some of the same sub-national high performance opportunities that their Canadian colleagues have had access to over the last few years. 

If games like this become a regular occurrence, it has the potential to lead to the very thing that Super Rugby's Greg Peters called for in our previous interview; a high-performance developmental league that could feed players into future Super Rugby franchises in the Americas.

USA Eagles Head Coach and former NYAC Coach Mike Tolkin knows the type of opportunities these matches offer for players looking to move on to the next level.

Some of the premier teams in the country are continuously looking to challenge themselves, building on the success that they've already achieved here in the USA. With elite or national team players on these squads, the opportunity to play an increased number of high-level matches is essential. The Canadian teams in similar situation feel the same, so this is a great opportunity to provide these teams and players a higher platform to play upon. It also builds a bit more excitement to play these games due to the fact that they are cross-border matches and bring the rivalry factor into play. Clubs and high performance players from both countries gain valuable elite-level matches.

Since the restructuring of the USA Super League in 2012, clubs like NYAC have been searching for more elite competition, so on a continent where these largely elite amateur teams must often travel huge distances to play a single match, fixtures like the one scheduled for May 4 are a blessing to these committed athletes and coaches.

Mark Winokur, the longtime manager of the Ontario Blues—arguably the most successful regional side in the Americas—knows these dilemmas well, and is thrilled that such an opportunity is only a bus ride away.

In the regular CRC competition our closest adversaries are in St. John's, Newfoundland and Calgary Alberta; three hours away by plane. These matches against teams like New York Athletic Club are fantastic for our players.

Without these games, many of our elite athletes would have to rely on the competition they take part in with their university or men's club sides, which is not at the same standard. Games like this offer players a change to test themselves against unfamiliar opposition, many of whom will be on the national team depth charts in the United States.

Winokur isn't wrong. As can be seen from the team rosters that were provided to Bleacher Report, located at the bottom of this article, many of the players on each team are either on the radar of their respective national programs or have ambitions towards that end.

New York Head Coach Bruce McLane also knows the value of these matches, and believes that they have the potential to be just as competitive as some of the national teams games which are held at tournaments like the Americas Rugby Championship.

The ARC is an important tournament, but there, the players must assemble quickly from all around the country and have limited practice time together before they head into games against other national sides. In matches like the one we have planned against the Ontario Blues, the teams will have more cohesion and confidence because they will have trained together over long periods of time, and will be more familiar with their teammates and team systems.

I have always enjoyed the way the Canadians have approached the game of rugby. I enjoy playing against them and testing our rugby against theirs. I know that this match will be an excellent opportunity to do that.

When Coach McLane speaks of his admiration for the Canadian rugby community, one has to believe that he is speaking—at least in part—of the success of their domestic rugby development systems and the Canadian Rugby Championship. 

If teams like New York Athletic Club were to one day find themselves in an expanded version of that tournament, one which truly allowed for regional teams from across North and South America to compete annually against each other, it might not be long before Super Rugby and its enormous commercial machine followed in its wake.

The match between the reigning CRC Champion Ontario Blues and the reigning Super Elite Cup Champion New York Athletic Club is scheduled for a 3pm kickoff on Saturday, May 4,  on Travers Island, New York.

Ontario Blues Team Roster:   (Club / Highest Level)

FORWARDSCreag Johnston (Scottish / Canada A), JT Rowbotham (Lindsay), Tom Dolezel (London / Canada), Nick Dewland (Ottawa Indians), Henry Mcqueen (Beach), Jacob Rumball (Beach / Canada A), Haddon Murray (Beach), Alistair Clark (Pigs / Canada A), Cam Stones (Ajax / Canada U20), Seb Pearson (London / Canada A), Mike Sheppard (Brampton), Matt Kelly (Scottish), Rob Brouwer (Lindsay)

BACKS - Andrew Ferguson (Oakville / Canada U20), Rory Tomlinson (Barrie), Ryan Tomlinson (Barrie / Canada A), Derek Daypuck (London / Canada), Liam Underwood (Beach / Canada A), Jon West (Aurora / Canada U20), Dylan Mundy (Oshawa), Grant Schnieder (Oakville), Davor Stojanov (Creek)

New York Athletic Club Roster:  (Highest Level)

Al McFarland (Australia Schools), Brian Doyle (USA Eagles), Chris Chapman (USA Eagles Pool), Conor Coyne (USA Eagles Pool), Danny Grace (Munster U-20), Gideon Balloch (Eastern Ontario), James Denise (USA Eagles Pool), Justin Hundley (USA 7s), Kirk Hamilton (NYAC), Kyle Granby (NYAC), Manny Cipriani (Italian Super 10), Marvin Jean Baptiste (NYAC), Thomas Coolican (USA Eagles Pool), Neil McMillan (Ireland A), Nick Discala (NYAC), Pat Fiffe (NYAC), Phil Bailey (Australia Kangaroos - Rugby League), Phil Rowe (Connacht), Rob Johnson (USA U-20), Ryan Diehl (USA All-American), Sean Verma (NYAC), Seth Cohen (USA Maccabi), Toby L'Estrange (USA Eagles)


Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise stated, all of the cited material was obtained first-hand.

Follow the author on Twitter: @RugbyScribe

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