“Imagine what it’s going to be like in 2020 if we’ve got some kids from the Bronx and Brooklyn, playing in the Olympic Games in Tokyo.”
In his spare office in New York City, on 9th and West 45th, trophies stacked with bags of rugby balls on the metal shelves behind him, Mark Griffin smiles and takes a sip of water. Griffin is the founder and CEO of Play Rugby USA, an inner-city nonprofit which is now joint-operator of America’s first community Olympic development programme (CODP) for rugby union. The sport returns to the Games in Rio this summer but Griffin is looking four years ahead.
In Las Vegas, meanwhile, the best men’s teams in the world are looking only to the next three days, in which they will contest the USA Sevens.
The big teams are attacking Olympic year in earnest: New Zealand will field Sonny Bill Williams, while Bryan Habana is in South Africa’s squad.
The US Eagles do not have such superstars, though they do have Carlin Isles, Perry Baker and Zack Test, crossovers from football who have made themselves increasingly well known. In Vegas, they will be contenders for a knockout place, for a tournament win, for points on the HSBC World Series.
In this Olympic year, though, the Eagles’ job extends beyond the field of play. They must begin to win the attention of the American sporting public – both TV viewers and, perhaps more importantly, striving young athletes.
That is where Griffin and others come in. When it comes to the effect the Games can have on American youth rugby, most such operators agree with Don James, a former Eagles prop turned entrepreneur who will on Friday stage an awareness-raising event at Sam Boyd Stadium in Vegas, under the title “Rise of Rugby”.
“Rugby is the fastest-growing youth sport in America,” James says, down the phone from San Francisco, citing a familiar statistic from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association which says participation in US youth rugby grew by 81.6% from 2008 to 2013.
Rugby now has a foothold in America. Or, to stay with the dubious moutaineering analogies, potentially frightening exposure. The performance of the Eagles’ men’s and women’s teams in Rio will help determine how fast and safe the climb can be.
So will the many stakeholders of American rugby. In terms of developing the men and women who will play in Tokyo and beyond, governing body USA Rugby supervises, from Colorado, as a number of organisations seek out talent. There is also Tiger Rugby in Ohio and Atavus in Seattle, and more. The English are interested too: Premiership Rugby recently launched its Try Rugby USA programme, also in New York.