Pro Rugby in America: Brian Burke Calls for Professional Rugby in North America

Jeff Hull@@HullatHomeContributor IIIAugust 22, 2013

Brian Burke has joined forces with Rugby Canada in a search for the pro game.
Brian Burke has joined forces with Rugby Canada in a search for the pro game.Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Professional rugby in North America has been a hot topic in 2013. 

Our exclusive Bleacher Report coverage has previously chronicled the interest of both SANZAR (Super Rugby) and Premiership Rugby Limited (The Aviva Premiership) in gaining a foothold in the Americas.

Local American investment groups have also been involved in discussions.

Today, former NHL executive and Toronto Maple Leafs President Brian Burke added his experienced voice to the fray, as he took to the podium on behalf of Rugby Canada; on whose Board of Directors Burke now occupies a prominent seat.

The scene was a press conference, in advance of this weekend's Rugby World Cup qualifier in Toronto, where Burke was keen to answer your humble corespondent's questions in regards to the the future of pro rugby on the continent.

When an organization like Rugby Canada says they want you on their board, why I think that's a great honour.

Professional rugby is coming, in my view. We're playing catch-up with a lot of established professional sports. We're playing catch-up with a lot of broadcast sports, but that doesn't diminish the fact that we think we have a product that can compete with those sports.

Rugby is a late comer to us here in North America, but that hasn't stopped other sports from acquiring the kind of status they want to have in the professional community. So I think professional rugby is coming. I don't want to give you a time frame on it, but that's our goal.

Flanking Burke at the press conference were Canada and ASM Clermont-Auvergne star Jamie Cudmore and Canadian National Senior Men's Team head coach Kieran Crowley.

Burke made it clear that he wanted the next generation of elite rugby players in North America to be plying their trade in front of Canadian and American audiences.

Our goal is to get to a place where an athlete like Jamie Cudmore doesn't have to go to France to play. There will be a Canadian pro team that will put him to work, or an American team. So that's our goal. I don't know how close we are to that, but that's our goal. 

Those are the discussions we've had. This is a great game and not enough people know about it. That's been true of a lot of sports that have gone on to become successful. Not enough people knew about them or not enough people watched them. That is something we have to fix.

So Many Paths, Not Enough Forward

As mentioned, Burke's comments come amid an increasing amount of attention on North America within the rugby community. The United States in particular has long been seen as the "sleeping giant" of global rugby.

Many acknowledge that, if only a fraction of those athletes who trained to play NFL football at the NCAA level went to on to play rugby, America would be a global powerhouse. However, until very recently, it was impossible for athletes in the United States to earn a living in the sport of rugby, and it still remains difficult.

Despite government funding that is now available to olympians pursuing their dreams in rugby sevens, players in the fifteens game are still reliant on overseas contracts.

International quotas and special "import rules" restrict the amount of North American players that take the field for any one European team. 

Both of North America's major unions field an array of starting talent with professional experience, but limited numbers of professionals remain the largest problem. Until North America develops its own well-paying professional league, neither the United States or Canada will be able to secure the necessary talent in their depth charts to truly compete for a World Cup title.

While various American stakeholders continue to eye ways of tapping into the country's rich NCAA athlete pool, Canada has long been preparing to take the next step.

They are a rugby nation built on a successful European regional model, but are virtually isolated in terms of national and elite club level opposition. 

Canada's four rugby regions, British Columbia, The Prairie Wolfpack, The Ontario Blues and The Atlantic Rock, have all proven their mettle against opposition from around the world.

Ontario, perhaps the strongest of Canada's regions, defeated the national team of Uruguay on a recent tour of South America, as well as Argentina's Salta Province. British Columbia defeated Russia in 2009.  

With the proper investment, Canada's rugby regions would surely be able to rival those of Italy, Scotland and other European countries; however, without opposition in America, they remain an expensive plane ride away from any meaningful competition.

To those desperately hoping for professional rugby to take root across North America, Brian Burke's comments will come as a much needed boost; however, it is a boost limited to the area of morale.

Those who have gotten their structure right in Canada continue to want for money and those in America, who are awash in potential investment and media coverage, continue to bicker over the structure of their path forward.

For now, that path continues to travel in circles, and fans across the continent are dizzy from trying to keep up.

Perhaps forceful personalities like Brian Burke are what is needed to straighten out rugby's future in North America. If so, rugby fans across the world would be forever in his debt.

Jeff Hull is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

Unless otherwise stated, all material was obtained first-hand.

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