With all the hype surrounding the restyling and subsequent development of the new European Champions Cup, to replace the now defunct Heineken Cup, one question that could easily have been raised would have been the inclusion of American teams. It could just have easily as been dismissed but it is something that should certainly be discussed in future planning.
With the game in America continually expanding the potential media and commercial benefits are massive. With a population as large as it is, there is undoubtedly the talent in there to provide competitive teams. The USA has already talked about being a challenger for the World Cup in years to come, even as soon as 2023.
Any argument for inclusion however must take into consideration the ability to be competitive and to fit in to the already packed schedule and framework that is evident in current European rugby. Rabo Direct Pro 12 leaders have already spoken about distancing themselves from such expansion as they find themselves packed to the rafters with games already, with their current member teams and players finding themselves tied up for 44 weekends a year already – they have since declared that any inclusion of American games would simply be a one-off or exhibition spectacle.
Granted, the Premiership competition in England has already looked at this expansion themselves. They have even sent coaches over to the collegiate system that American sports use, no doubt looking to develop the talent that lies undiscovered in the vast, sports mad country of America. Teams such as London Irish have mooted the idea of playing in areas such as Boston or New York, looking to tap into the vast Irish market these cities already have. At the moment the idea is just to play one game a year abroad but this is at the risk of angering “home” fans who may not be too pleased at seeing their team abandon their usual home stadium.
If any lesson from the past was to be repeated then the idea with the inclusion of American teams would surely do well to follow the example set when Italy were included into first the 6 Nations on an International level and then when their club teams were included in the Celtic league program (formerly Magners League, now Rabo Direct Pro 12). Italy started with club teams then switched to the regional format that the other Celtic nations use. Since then, Italy has gone on to provide a much more sustained challenge internationally, beating teams including the likes of France in the 6 Nations, twice in recent years.
This inclusion saw them develop their best players by playing in a higher competition, against better opposition week in, week out. This can only bode well for the future. And the same could just as easily be true for the USA.
Perhaps the biggest excitement for rugby fans in America however is the discussions that have taken place regarding the expansion of the southern hemisphere’s Super 15 rugby competition. Bosses there have already toyed with the idea, claiming it would remiss to ignore such an opportunity to include the market opportunities that the USA can offer.
All in all it seems that inclusion for American based teams is only just around the corner, and the most likely destination for them is the Super 15 tournament – a move that bodes well for the international team as well as club development.